CINCINNATI — Addiction recovery professionals say a new smartphone app developed by college students gives drug users in Ohio a way to stay safe from overdoses.
The SOAR app allows people a way to anonymously report drug overdose spikes and counterfeit drugs without police involvement.
A team of Ohio State University undergraduates formed The SOAR Initiative in 2019. The app aims to attack an epidemic that Center for Disease Control and Prevention data shows kills Ohioans at a higher rate than every state but Delaware and West Virginia.
"(We) were really shaken to hear that someone died just steps from our dorm," said Pranav Padmanabhan, the executive director for The SOAR Initiative.
The overdose deaths and risks leave pain and strain hidden in plain sight.
"It blows my mind," said Dr. Melissa Anderson, BrightView Health's director of public policy and advocacy. "We have patients who walk into our clinics early and no one has looked them in the eye for years. (Other clinics have) treated them like stray animals."
Anderson holds MD and PharmD degrees, but what motivates her advocacy is her personal struggle. She is nine years into recovery and said she is determined to help others survive.
"We've almost lost a third of my high school class," Anderson said. "I was a fentanyl user before fentanyl was cool, and I lived to tell about it. Now, I just want to make sure — I don't believe people should die if they use drugs."
The creators of the SOAR app agree. After a peer overdosed from cocaine laced with fentanyl in a Columbus bar, they built a text alert system for users and first responders to warn people about "bad batches" of street drugs.
"It's deadly and it's really playing Russian roulette taking any (street) drug," said Jason Schumacher, the assistant special agent in charge at the Drug Enforcement Agency's Cincinnati office.
DEA agents and police officers around Cincinnati see fentanyl in almost every drug they seize.
"Look, I wish no one was using drugs, but the truth is we're not going to get rid of addiction," said Newtown Police Chief Tom Synan, a member of the Hamilton County Addiction Response Coalition. "What we want to try to do is, can we keep people alive?"
Synan said he supports the app, which offers the state's first mail-order fentanyl test trip program and links to free Narcan.
"First of all, I think it would be great to have an app like that," said Rose Henderson, director of counseling services for the Center for Addiction Treatment.
Henderson's staff lost a client to an overdose two months ago, and it remains a fear for counselors elsewhere.
"You don't want to wait until you need Narcan," Anderson said. "I see many people, they hide it. They hide it in their home. I've got it on my keychain."
BrightView's team wants to help clients turn the page on addiction. However, with so many struggling, they support tools like the app if it helps keep clients alive.
This story was originally published by Larry Seward on Scripps station WCPO in Cincinnati.