Credit: Georgia Health News
'Perfect Storm:' An Opioid Menace Like Never Before
There’s no real profile for the victims. They don’t appear to fit into any particular economic, racial or ethnic grouping.
The rising numbers of opioid overdoses “seem to hit everyone,’’ says Dr. Dan McCollum, an emergency medicine physician at Augusta University Medical Center. “It hits all economic strata.’’
Even age is no longer the factor it used to be. Overdose patients coming into ERs are increasingly middle-aged and older, as compared to youthful drug users in past decades, he said Friday.
“We’re seeing a great deal of fentanyl being used,’’ he added. “The scary thing is that is hits so fast. It can stop your breathing so quickly.’’
The opioid overdose stats have jumped statewide, alarming public health and medical experts.
Georgia saw a big jump in opioid-related overdose deaths last year, fueled by a doubling of the number of fatalities involving fentanyl, according to data from the state Department of Public Health released last week.
Overall, opioid overdose deaths rose by 36% in 2020.
And those increases have continued in the early months of this year, with fentanyl again a major driver.
The COVID-19 pandemic has played a large role in the overdose spike, experts say.
The pandemic has created “a perfect storm’’ for the opioid crisis, said Hannah Cooper of Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health.
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A synthetic scourge
Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid that’s 50 times more potent than heroin. It is a prescription drug that is made and used illegally, and is commonly found at the street level in counterfeit pills or powder form. Fentanyl is often mixed with other drugs.
“Just about everything, from cocaine to meth to heroin, has fentanyl and [its derivative] carfentanil in it,’’ Neil Campbell, executive director of the Georgia Council on Substance Abuse, said Friday. “There are some really dangerous chemicals out there that are killing people.’’
The areas of the state with the highest rates of opioid deaths last year include the northwest region of the state, the East Central district — based in Augusta — and the Cobb/Douglas health district in metro Atlanta.
This year, a high number of emergency room visits related to opioid overdoses have come in other areas as well, including Macon/Bibb County and Carroll County in west Georgia.
Suspected overdoses in Chatham County numbered 368 in 2020, but this year, from Jan. 1 to April 19, there have already been 336 suspected overdoses, the Savannah Morning News reported.
“I don’t think that there is any overwhelming demographic for drug use or overdose; it attacks all,” Chatham Emergency Services CEO Chuck Kearns told the newspaper. “It’s nondiscriminatory.”
Not just Georgia's problem
The spike has occurred nationally as well. The CDC reported that more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.
While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months before the pandemic, the CDC said, the latest numbers suggested an acceleration of overdose deaths as the virus spread.
Cooper, who is Rollins Chair of Substance Use Disorders at Emory’s Rollins School of Public Health, said fentanyl had already become more widespread than ever when COVID hit.
Because of the pandemic shutdowns, she said, that availability of the dangerous drug was coupled with a decrease in access to drug treatment and social services.
In addition, Cooper said, the pandemic’s “shock to the economic and social systems’’ helped lead to isolation, creating depression and anxiety, which can increase drug use.
She called for wider access to naloxone, a medication that can rapidly reverse an opioid overdose, and to test strips for users to detect whether fentanyl is present in a drug.
Drug treatment services, Cooper added, should be available “on demand,’’ and the problem of homelessness should be addressed.
The opioid crisis “is creating tremendous suffering in our communities,’’ she said. “Georgia is trying to mount more of a response to overdoses,’’ Cooper added.
Addictions appear to be rising across the board, she and others say.
McCollum said he’s seeing an increase in alcohol-related problems as well.
“We’re seeing a great deal of suicidality,’’ he said. “We’re going to have to approach [the crisis] from multiple directions.’’
Rebecca Grapevine contributed to this story.
This story comes to GPB through a reporting partnership with Georgia Health News.