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Settlement money won’t restore Ohio city upended by opioids

AKRON, Ohio (AP) — The tentative settlement involving the opioid crisis and the maker of OxyContin could mean that thousands of local governments will one day be paid back for some of the costs of responding to the epidemic.

But for public officials in Akron, no amount of money will restore the families and institutions that were upended by prescription painkillers, heroin and fentanyl.

“The overwhelming sense of hopelessness that took over this community in 2016, you can’t monetize that,” former Assistant Summit County Prosecutor Greta Johnson told lawyers in a deposition in January. “Every single day the newspaper was reporting on the overdose death rates. You could not go into a community setting where there were not weeping mothers talking about their children.”

OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma struck a proposed deal Wednesday with about half the states and thousands of local governments over its role in the crisis. But criticism by several state attorneys general clouded prospects for an end to litigation against the company and the family that owns it.

Some people in Akron say the once-proud rubber capital of the world will never be the same. Hundreds of overdose deaths shattered families, orphaned children, exhausted first responders and drained government resources. At one point, city officials needed a mobile morgue to house all the corpses.

Ohio’s fifth-largest city and the surrounding Summit County were scheduled to be the first of some 2,000 governments, along with Cleveland’s Cuyahoga County, to go to trial against drugmakers next month. Local officials sought damages from the manufacturers they hold responsible.

Overdose deaths — which hit 340, or nearly one a day, in 2016 — took a toll on the county medical examiner’s budget and her staff. At the height of the scourge, they often had to perform two or more drug-related autopsies in an average day.

Dr. Lisa Kohler, the county’s chief medical examiner, recalled “the mental stress of dealing with repeated cases of having multiple deaths in the same families over a period of weeks to months.”

The calls about overdose deaths were constant, and “it just felt like it was never going to stop,” Kohler said.

The need for the mobile morgue laid bare the devastating extent of the crisis. The trailers were originally intended for a mass-fatality event, such as a natural disaster, plane crash or terrorist attack.

Akron Fire Chief Clarence Tucker said it sometimes felt as if his community was under attack.

“We handle 45,000 calls a year, and it just kept climbing and climbing,” he said. The fire department had to accelerate maintenance schedules on vehicles, mobilize off-duty paramedics and cope with staff burnout.

“You can get a call someone has overdosed and you get there, you can bring them back with Narcan. Then you’ll go to the same address in the afternoon,” Tucker said. “Or you go to that address in the morning and the two parents have overdosed and there’s a child there. It’s just horrible. It really is.”

Summit County’s estimated payout from the $12 billion tentative Purdue settlement was estimated at $13.2 million. Akron would receive about $3.7 million. Barberton, the county’s second-largest city, would receive $492,000.