The Western Circuit District Attorney's Office and the Athens-Clarke County Police Department announced July 22 a joint effort to address the deadly fentanyl epidemic that has taken 12 lives and possibly more this year in Athens.
And that same day, police officers and the county coroner walked into an Athens house where two victims of apparent drug overdose lay immobile.
One, a 23-year-old former University of North Georgia student from Buford, was dead. The other, a 24-year-old Dalton man who graduated from the University of Georgia in May with a mechanical engineering degree, was unconscious.
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The survivor was placed on life support in a hospital. Then two days later, he improved to the point he could be moved to another hospital unit, Athens-Clarke Coroner Sonny Wilson said Monday.
Wilson, coroner since 2009, said he has never seen as many drug overdose deaths as he has examined so far this year.
"We're twice what we were last year," he said.
Athens-Clarke police Lt. Shaun Barnett said Monday that from Jan. 1 through July 15 this year, there have been 35 suspected drug overdose deaths. The autopsy toxicology tests have now confirmed 18 were due to an overdose and of that number, 12 were linked to the dangerous drug fentanyl.
To address the problem, Interim Police Chief Jerry Saulters and District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez announced the joint formation of SAFE, or Strategically Addressing the Fentanyl Epidemic.
"We cannot arrest our way out of this," Saulters said in a statement released with Gonzalez, who said, "This epidemic impacts the community at large, we must work together to create effective and attainable solutions."
Earlier this month, Saulters and Gonzalez hosted a meeting to include people who work in drug-recovery organizations along with government officials, healthcare providers and those in the justice system among others.
Those officials began brainstorming ideas to address the deadly crisis, according to their report.
Athens-Clarke police by policy carry the opioid-reversal medication Narcan, which can save lives for those suffering an opioid overdose, according to Barnett. Those receiving Narcan are typically unresponsive and have low pulse rates when police arrive.
This year from Jan. 1 through July 15, there were 66 deployments of Narcan, while in that same time period in 2021 there were 26 deployments, Barnett said. In total for 2021, there were 71. Sometimes, a person requires more than one dosage of the medication, he added.
"It's obviously increased since then," Barnett said about the 2022 data, noting the most recent overdose case.
Police began carrying Narcan in their patrol units about two years ago, Barnett said.
"It was something we recognized was an issue even a couple of years ago. Every officer was trained on how to use it and when to use it," he said.
However, police data doesn't show the scope of the entire problem as others have used Narcan in drug overdose cases, according to Barnett. This includes private individuals as well as fire and EMS workers, and there are cases when overdose victims are dropped off at hospitals — cases where police are not necessarily notified.
But police intervention in overdose cases is saving lives, according to the coroner.
"If they didn't have Narcan, I'd be going from one case to another," Wilson said. "Thank the Lord, everybody is carrying Narcan. Fentanyl is some bad stuff."
In the most recent case in Athens involving the two men, Wilson said officers found drug residue in the house, some testing positive for cocaine, but another drug that has to be analyzed.
"Fentanyl is in a lot of drugs. They (dealers) are using fentanyl as a binder and a mix to make it go further," Wilson said.
As a result, Barnett said people may purchase a particular drug not knowing it's laced with dangerous fentanyl, and as a result, could accidentally consume a fatal amount.
On July 14, the Northeast Georgia Regional Drug Task Force arrested two drug suspects in a home where police said 2,000 doses of fentanyl were seized. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta reports that fentanyl is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
"It's like Jerry (the interim police chief) said, I don't think you can arrest your way out of this crisis," Wilson said. "We need to close the border and stop it from coming across," he said about drug dealers carrying fentanyl across the Mexican border into the United States.
"They don't care who it kills," Wilson said about the dealers and makers of the synthetic opioid.
This article originally appeared on Athens Banner-Herald: Athens police, DA form team to combat fentanyl overdose deaths