Overdose deaths spike in Chatham County; officials blame border crisis

Published: Jun. 18, 2021 at 2:37 PM EDT|Updated: Jun. 18, 2021 at 6:57 PM EDT
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CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - New data shows as many people have died from opioid-related overdoses so far this year in Chatham County as did for the entire year of 2020. Officials say drug cartels are taking advantage of the ongoing border crisis, and flooding drugs into the U.S.

It’s the drug fentanyl that has law enforcement from two different Chatham County agencies concerned. Officials say recent drug busts have helped slow the flow of fentanyl into our community. But not after a spike in deaths.

“That’s what’s killing everybody,” said Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Director Michael Sarhatt. “The fentanyl that’s in the heroin.”

Sarhatt told WTOC that during two recent raids, his agency seized roughly half a dozen kilograms of fentanyl. There’s 1,000 grams in a kilogram, and 1,000 milligrams in 1 gram.

“A sweet and low pack is 1 gram,” Sarhatt said. “It takes 2-3 milligrams to kill somebody.”

New numbers from CNT show Chatham County has already matched last year’s overdose death total. In 2020, 28 people died from suspected overdoses. As of June 9, 28 deaths had already been recorded.

Sarhatt blames the border crisis.

“The bulk of the drugs that come into this country come through the southern border. And, when they open that border up, the cartels are getting that stuff across the border.”

In the past six months alone, Texas troopers seized nearly 60 pounds of fentanyl at the U.S.-Mexico border. Fentanyl seizures are up 800 percent in Texas this year. Sarhatt says that border is only one stop away from Savannah.

“Atlanta is one of the few cities in the country that every Mexican cartel has a foothold.”

The sight of an overdose may look hopeless to some, but law enforcement is tracking overdoses in Chatham County and using that data to pinpoint the source of the deadly drugs. It’s a system called “OD Map.”

Maj. Robert Gavin with the Savannah Police Department’s Criminal Investigation Division said it’s something the department started doing roughly four years ago.

“Back in 2017, we took on a federal grant that involved us being involved in O.D. Maps,” Maj. Gavin said.

Below is a recent snapshot of Savannah’s OD Map. Every symbol on your screen represents a suspected overdose. Each diamond represents someone who died.

A look at suspected overdoses in Chatham County.
A look at suspected overdoses in Chatham County.(WTOC)

Maj. Gavin said it’s getting more difficult, to save people.

“Because fentanyl is so potent, it’s taking 3-4 doses of NARCAN to pull someone out of an overdose,” he said. For reference, Savannah police officers always carry one dose of NARCAN on them.

According to Sarhatt, fentanyl is 100 times more potent than morphine, and 50-times stronger than heroin. He said drug dealers are using it because it’s cheap. He added that young athletes are at high-risk to become hooked on opioids, and that parents need to be on high-alert, even if the medication is doctor-prescribed.

Savannah Police added that it’s not just being used in heroin; they’re also finding it on marijuana and in pills, like Oxycontin. Gavin said it’s so dangerous, their officers have to use special equipment to handle it. As of June 17, Chatham Emergency Services has responded to 454 overdose calls since January 1, 2021. That averages out to more than 80 overdose calls per month, or more than two a day.

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