Decrease in drug overdose cases reason for cautious optimism for Dougherty County officials

Jan. 3—ALBANY — A few months doesn't make a trend, but a decrease in drug overdose cases does give local officials some cause for optimism.

Dougherty County Emergency Medical Services saw the number of overdose calls decrease significantly in December, a month that traditionally has a high number of cases due to the holidays.

"We had five patients that required Narcan in December," EMS Director Sam Allen said, referring to a brand name for the drug naloxone, which is given to patients suffering an opioid overdose. "We had 14 (in) the month of November. For October we had 18."

The decline is noticeable. During some of the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, when drug use and overdose cases spiked significantly, the service at times saw as many as eight overdose cases during one 12-hour shift.

"This is the first trend down we have seen since, I would say, since 2017," Allen said. "There's always the chance it could spike again, but we're hopeful the numbers will continue to go down."

The EMS director has noted in the past that emergency medical personnel will frequently see the victim from one overdose case on another drug call weeks, or sometimes even hours, later. Personnel try to refer victims to Aspire Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities Services, which provides drug recovery services in the area.

"We hope that people will reach out to Aspire to get help in getting off this mess," Allen said.

The new year started out with one overdose call on New Year's Eve and another on New Year's Day, he said.

"We're prepared if the numbers do go back up," Allen said.

For 2022, the county is looking at a possible slight decline in overdose deaths, according to Dougherty County Coroner Michael Fowler.

As of Tuesday, the number of confirmed overdose deaths for 2022 stood at 26, with nine cases pending for which the coroner's office is awaiting toxicology results from the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

There were 38 confirmed overdose deaths in the county in 2021.

"They (GBI) are backed up at least 60 days" for toxicology work, Fowler said. "For the deaths from the last two or three months, we're waiting on the results."

Drug use is suspected in the six outstanding cases due to needles or other paraphernalia found at the scene of death and the young age of some of the deceased, but there is no way to confirm an overdose without the tests, the coroner said.

"We can't say for sure," he said. "They might have died of something else."

The coroner's office, EMS, Georgia Department of Public Health and the Phoebe Putney Health System are teaming up for a program scheduled for March to give a simulated look at the dangers of opioids, particularly the potent and widely available fentanyl.

A program held with student actors and first responders last year drew about 5,000 students to the Albany Civic Center, Fowler said. In the scenario, two individuals received "bad drugs" that killed one, which the coroner attended to while an ambulance rolled in to take out a surviving patient.

Vaping, which has grown in popularity in some circles, is one way that opioid products are administered, the EMS director said, and that will be a focus of the 2023 program at the Civic Center.

"The teenagers are the ones who are more likely to use the vaping devices," Allen said. "If parents see that, they may not think about it, where if they see a needle it would raise alarm.

"The majority of (overdose) cases we see are needles."

The coroner said he hopes the program will have an impact on younger kids and that they will remember the lesson when they reach the age where young people typically begin experimenting with drugs.