Police use overdose data to track flow of drugs in Chatham County

Fentanyl-related overdoses have spiked nationwide this year
Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 4:29 PM EDT
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - WTOC continues to investigate the alarming increase in Fentanyl overdoses in our area. Last month, we told viewers about the shocking data out of Chatham County: less than halfway through 2021, the county has already matched last year’s total number of overdose deaths. 28 overdoses were recorded in all of 2020.

Our team wanted to find out more about what police are doing to slow the flow of deadly, fentanyl-laced drugs into our community. WTOC also previously reported on OD Maps, a system police use to track overdoses. It shows large clusters of recorded overdoses in Chatham County.

It’s something that concerns parents like Lesli Messinger.

“When a mother loses a child, you’re not scared of anything. You’ve already been through the worst of it.”

Messinger understands the pain that so many parents are experiencing this year. Her son, Austin, died from an opioid overdose in 2005. She made it her life’s mission then to save other families from that heartache. She even started an organization, “No more ODs,” to raise awareness.

The recent spread of fentanyl nationwide has taken this epidemic to a new level.

“I get texts all the time, ‘I need fentanyl (testing) strips, I need them bad!’” Messinger said. “… Anybody who knows anything about what’s going on will not shoot-up heroin without testing it.”

Investigators with the Chatham County Counter-Narcotics (CNT) team tell WTOC fentanyl is cheaper - and stronger - than heroin. They say that is the reason traffickers choose to lace drugs – anything from pills and marijuana to heroin – with the odorless substance.

CNT blames the border crisis - for the sudden uptick in overdoses. Chatham County Police Chief Jeff Hadley says overdoses are a problem county-wide.

“As you can see from the map, it really spans the county. It goes from Pooler to Bloomingdale… really, everywhere,” Hadley said.

Two major interstates run-through Chatham County: Interstates 16 and 95. I-16 runs straight from Atlanta to Savannah. I-95 runs along nearly the entire east coast, from Miami to Maine. Chief Hadley believes they are pipelines for these fatal drugs and points to one exit, in-particular.

“A big problem for us is the 204-95 corridor, with the multiple hotels. It’s very transient in nature. You know, people can get on and off 95 very quickly, and go in multiple directions,” Hadley said.

Clusters of overdoses have been recorded around certain exits off I-95 in Chatham County, including several this year alone near the 204-95 corridor. Hadley said when police see this data - they’re able to hone-in on those areas. Hadley credits CNT for its work, saying it is one of the best in the country at what it does.

Hadley said modern technology both helps and hurts police in their efforts to crack-down on dealers. He said cell phones, for example, allow these distributors to change-up their drop-off locations. Meaning, they can drop-off - and leave town - without a trace.

“And we may never even know who they are,” Hadley added.

But that isn’t discouraging police, or people like Messinger. Messinger seeks-out users, giving them supplies - including one-use needles, cookers for heroin and fentanyl testing strips. Most notably – she supplies them with the overdose-reversing, life-saving drug Naloxone – also known as NARCAN. We were there as Messinger gave doses to a woman who says she knows people that use.

“The last person I gave NARCAN to – that was about a month ago. And yeah, that was pretty scary,” the woman told Messinger.

Messinger tells WTOC that the woman contacted her again soon after the visit. She says she told her she used the NARCAN on someone, saving them from an overdose. Small victories like these give some on the frontlines of this battle, hope.

“And I always answer, ‘that’s wonderful, you’re a hero.’ You are! You’re a hero,” Messinger said. “That’s one mother that isn’t planning a funeral.”

Messinger said up until this year, the users she helps wouldn’t take fentanyl testing strips. But now that’s changed. She said the fentanyl problem is so bad, that they are now asking her for them. Lesli’s message for parents with children battling with addiction, is to never give up on them... no matter how frustrating it gets.

Messinger said warning signs for parents to look-out for include:

  • Missing spoons (heroin use)
  • Cotton balls
  • Empty ink pens
  • Unusual sleepiness
  • Unusual energy

Messinger also echoes the message by police to clean out your medicine cabinets regularly and keep track of what is inside of it. She also suggests you put any subscription opiates/pain medication in a safe place.

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