COLUMBUS, Ohio (WCMH) — First responders are tackling an epidemic within the pandemic. In response to a surge in deadly opioid overdose deaths, Franklin County law enforcement, fire and public health workers are expanding community engagement and recovery efforts.

“We have to somehow start saving these lives,” emphasized Sgt. Brian Toth, part of the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office Heroin Overdose Prevention and Education (HOPE) task force.

In the past six weeks, the Franklin County Coroner reported a surge in overdose deaths. In April, 96 people died from overdoses, 62 of which are suspected to be linked to opioids. Weekends have been especially deadly, with an average of five to seven opioid overdose deaths every Friday night.

Law enforcement suspect the cause is due to isolation during quarantine, more limited access to recovery resources and an increase in high potency drugs like fentanyl.

“We’ve had people who haven’t been able to get out, haven’t been able to socialize, have not been able to reach their partners who help them through their addiction struggles,” explained Columbus Division of Police officer Adam Ball.

The surge of deadly overdoses in April inspired a collaborative effort in May dubbed “Operation RECOVERY.” The month-long campaign includes members from the H.O.P.E. Task Force (Franklin County Sheriff’s Office), RREACT (Columbus Division of Fire, Columbus Division of Police), Franklin County Public Health, Columbus Public Health, The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center, and Southeast Healthcare.

Throughout the month, the team has been distributing and training users and others to use Narcan and Fentanyl test strips. Members have also been following with overdose survivors and known users in person and linking them to treatment and resources.

“No one person or one agency can just pound the streets everyday,” Sgt. Toth said. “We need multiple resources doing the same thing for the same goal.”

On Saturday, eight pop-up distribution sites provided Narcan and training directly to neighborhoods struggling most with substance abuse issues. They allowed neighbors to walk or drive through highly visible stations and speak directly to first responders.

“With us getting right into the problematic zip codes, we’ve been able to put it right into the hands of family members, and even to the people who suffer from substance use disorders,” explained Officer Ball. “Right in their own backyard.”

Team members say the increased efforts are already seeing progress. So far in May, the month has tallied 54 total overdose deaths, compared to April’s 96. Two people died from suspected overdoses on Friday, May 22nd, compared to previous week’s five to seven Friday average.

Importantly, first responders say the increased visibility and community engagement appears to be helping users, their families and friends more comfortable asking for help.

“We’ve kind of knocked out some of that stigma. A lot of these people have been afraid to come forward and ask for help,” said Officer Ball. “Now, they are coming forward and they’re willing to tell us their stories and help us.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, find a list of resources below:

Find a list of Project DAWN sites here.