Opioid-related overdoses in the Atlanta area are skyrocketing, which has police and medical personnel distributing record numbers of life-saving measures.
In several cases, reported overdoses during the first six months of 2022 have exceeded those of the entire previous year.
“We have absolutely seen a spike in the number of opioid-related overdoses since the pandemic began,” said Dunwoody Police Public Information Officer Sgt. Michael Cheek. “At this rate, we will surely exceed the numbers for 2021.”
According to Cheek, police were involved in administering Naloxone (Narcan), a nasal spray used to rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, 4 times in 2019 after six reported overdoses. In 2020, there were 14 incidents resulting in the administration of Narcan 21 times. In 2021, the number of doses administered jumped to 27 for 14 overdoses.
During the first six months of 2022, there were 20 doses administered during 16 reported incidents. (In most cases, according to officials, Narcan may have to be administered several times to a victim in order to revive him or her — thus the disparity in incidents and the number of units that are administered.)
In Brookhaven, the trend is much the same. According to Sgt. Matthew Murray, in 2019, there were 11 overdose cases reported to the police, and nine were opiate-related. Of the 13 cases documented in 2020, all were opiate-related. That number jumped to 21 in 2021 (19 opioid-related), and in 2022, there have already been 10 documented overdose cases, with eight cases related to opiates.
“We only document cases where there was some kind of police intervention where police administered Narcan, evidence was collected or property placed into safekeeping,” Murray said.
The Police & Narcan
Most police departments now stock several vials of Narcan in officers’ vehicles. All 58 Dunwoody officers carry Narcan, as well as the 85 patrol officers in Brookhaven.
Opioid-related incidents are being seen all over the country. According to the latest statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), during 2019-20, there were only five states not experiencing an increase in opiate overdose deaths (Louisiana, Delaware, New Hampshire, New Jersey, and Massachusetts).
In Georgia, the number of reported opioid-related deaths in 2019 was 419. In 2020, that number climbed to 896, a 115% increase.
The role of Fentanyl
Police point to the popularity of the powerful synthetic opiate Fentanyl as the reason for the rising number of overdoses and deaths. Fentanyl, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration, “is a synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times stronger than morphine.
Pharmaceutical Fentanyl was developed for pain management treatment of cancer patients, applied in a patch on the skin. Because of its powerful opioid properties, Fentanyl is also diverted for abuse.”
Fentanyl, primarily manufactured in Mexico, is often added to other drugs to increase its potency, often without the knowledge of the end user, the DEA said.
“There are no safe illegal drugs out there anymore,” Murray said. “It’s extremely difficult to detect whether or not street drugs like Xanax, heroin or even marijuana are laced with Fentanyl until it’s too late.”
Cindy Gebhardt of Dunwoody is one who knows firsthand of the heartache caused by the opioid crisis. Her son, Steve, known to many as “Stevie D.,” died on January 25, after ingesting Xanax laced with Fentanyl. While he had been struggling for several years with addiction issues, his mother said he had been clean and sober for at least six months before the incident that killed him.
“It was a big shock to us because he had been doing so well,” Gebhardt said. “We had been very intentional about keeping track of him. He was never a huge user, but when he did, he got into trouble.”
Gebhardt said medical personnel who answered the call after her son was found unresponsive on January 20 administered Narcan, which revived him but “he had been gone too long.” After five days in intensive care, he was taken off life support.
‘It doesn’t take much’
Police say Gebhardt’s story is a familiar one.
“Since it’s such a powerful opiate, people tend to overdose the first time they take it,” Murray said.
Cheek said the crisis “is growing” with no end in sight.
“Fentanyl is an extremely dangerous and potent substance,” Cheek said. “The drugs of today are not like those of the past. It doesn’t take much for someone to overdose.”
Nancy Junay of Dunwoody is another mother who has experienced the same tragedy. Her son, Connor Vieira, died of a Fentanyl overdose. He and Stevie D were longtime friends.
“He just never thought he would have any consequences to his actions, even after Stevie D. died,” she said. “We came home from Stevie’s funeral, and I told him, ‘Don’t ever do that to me.’”
‘It’s hard to know where to start’
But the grip of his addiction was too powerful to overcome, despite multiple interventions by his family, friends, and law enforcement. Connor died on April 9 at the age of 23.
“We did so much, and it didn’t make a difference – rehabilitation, counseling, and so many other things. I would even run after drug dealers coming by the house, and Connor still managed to get his drugs,” she said.
There seems to be no clear path to reducing the number of opioid-related overdoses and deaths, police say.
“We need to get control of this issue, but it’s hard to know where to start,” Cheek said. “There is no trend we can identify – it’s males and females, rich and poor. And it’s not just an Atlanta problem – it’s a United States problem.”