heroin ODs

Heroin ODs spiked in PC this summer

Her body jolted. She tried to sit up, gasping for air, then fell back on the bed. A deputy stood over her as EMTs rushed into the dank bedroom. Power and water to her home was cut off weeks ago when she could no longer pay the bills.

“Are you ok?” the officer asked her as he handed a Narcan® bottle to the EMT. “I think it’s a heroin overdose. I revived her with this, and she came right back, but she wasn’t breathing when I got here.”

Still disoriented, she lay limp as first responders checked her vitals and prepared her for transport.

The deputy picked up a bag of powder from the night stand.

“Will I go to the hospital or to jail? Does it even matter?” she wondered.

That scene, or one very similar, happened here repeatedly this summer as overdose calls in Blackshear and Pierce County spiked in July and August.

“This is killing people,” Blackshear Police Chief Chris Wright told The Times recently.

Pierce County deputies used Narcan® nine times in July to revive overdose victims before emergency medical personnel arrived. Prior to July, PCSO didn’t record but one Narcan® use in February.

Some of those calls resulted in death.

“I do know we had some deaths … I recall one specifically, but I think there were a couple more. They were not dead when we got there, but they may have died at the hospital,” Sheriff Ramsey Bennett says.

Blackshear PD also responded to five overdose calls in two months’ time, and their Narcan® supply was used to revive victims. One of those calls resulted in death. Four were confirmed heroin overdoses.

“We’re certain four of them were heroin overdoses. One of them may have been pills. It’s hard to tell,” Wright reported.

Grady EMS data for the year also shows a trend upwards in opioid overdose calls this summer, although few were documented specifically as heroin overdoses. EMTs responded to one or two calls per month January through April then three calls in May, five in June, four in July and six in August.

All PC deputies and BPD officers carry the nasal spray naloxone (Narcan®) in their patrol cars in the event it’s needed to revive a possible opioid overdose victim. Sometimes their supply is the key to saving a life before an ambulance arrives.

“If you go and don’t have any Narcan® the only thing you can do is rescue breathing,” Wright says.

The reviving drug blocks opioid receptors in the body and it works fast.

“They will come back to life in a hot minute,” Wright adds.

Area law enforcement officers and addiction recovery specialists speculate there may be several reasons for the spike in heroin use and overdoses this year.

The sheriff suspects the spike this summer may be related to a potentially lethal dose of heroin laced with fentanyl that several users got a hold of. He points to a trafficking arrest his department made in mid-July. Deputies confiscated approximately $30,000 worth of heroin (102 grams). Cash, scales and bags were also seized.

“We’ve not used Narcan® since we seized that huge amount of fentanyl and locked that gentleman up,” Bennett says.

But, Wright says he’s been expecting heroin use to pick up ever since federal regulations have tightened on the prescription industry, shutting down “pill mills” where drug abusers typically got access to opioids.

“That created more of a market for street type drugs,” Wright explains.  

Some of those users turned to heroin as their drug of choice instead. Heroin has a more unpredictable concentration level though. New users are unfamiliar with the drug and take too much, Wright suspects.

Others get a hold of heroin laced with another drug which further strengthens its concentration.

“I have only heard about the heroin overdoses anecdotally, but my understanding is that a lot of them are mixed with fentanyl which is a much stronger opioid and would account for the overdose in persons who are used to the heroin,” explains local Dr. Brent Waters. “They think they are using the same amount of product, but the potency is much higher and more deadly.”

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic and other stressors this year have also created a perfect storm for an increase in drug abuse and subsequent overdoses. Counselors at Cord of Three Counseling Services and Shane’s Crib, a women’s recovery ministry, agree their clients are struggling. Both ministries serve Pierce and surrounding counties.

“The pandemic has caused isolation … it’s been horrible for people,” says Amy Wilkerson, executive assistant at Shane’s Crib.

“We don’t see drug use in a vacuum. It’s always as a means to cope with something (like the pandemic),” explains Dusty Arnold, counselor with Cord of Three.

Wilkerson and Arnold also serve on coalitions to address the ongoing opioid crisis in Wayne and Jeff Davis counties, respectively. Pierce does not currently have an opioid crisis coalition.

Department of Public Health (DPH) data backs up the correlation between COVID-19 and opioid overdoses as well.

“Drug overdose increases identified through DPH syndromic surveillance and vital records appear to overlap with the emergence of COVID-19,” reads a recent DPH memo.

Opioid-involved emergency department (ED) visits increased 5.9 percent (weekly average) from March to June and heroin-involved ED visits increased 6.4 percent during that time.

From March to August, ED visits for drug overdose syndrome increased 1 percent per week with the following results:

• 4.4 percent of the average weekly increase was among opioid-involved visits

• 3.7 percent of the average weekly increase was among heroin-involved visits

• 12.8 percent of the average weekly increase was among visits mentioning Narcan®

DPH data for drug overdose-involved deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic shows a 9 percent increase in drug overdose deaths over a 15-week period as compared to the previous 15 weeks before the pandemic struck here in March 2020. During that time, there was a 25.3 percent increase in opioid-involved deaths and a 32.3 percent increase in heroin-involved deaths in Georgia.