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Demand for drug recovery resources skyrockets in Chatham County

Health leaders blame pandemic, spike in fentanyl nationwide
Published: Aug. 18, 2021 at 5:12 PM EDT
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CHATHAM COUNTY, Ga. (WTOC) - Officials say it’s a serious problem here in Chatham County: overdoses from street drugs laced with fentanyl, a much more powerful, odorless drug.

The WTOC Investigates team has been following this spike in fentanyl overdoses closely. We wanted to find out what resources are available for people addicted to opiates. We found there is help out there for people. But some advocates feel a lot more can be done across the Coastal Empire.

Mary Shuman says she’s been sober for six months now. A self-described long-time, high-functioning heroin addict here in Chatham County, Shuman said the problem is much worse than most people think.

“There’s a huge heroin problem here. There’s a huge fentanyl problem here,” Shuman said. “If you know what you’re looking at, and you know how to look for it, you’ll see it everywhere.”

Shuman said she’s overdosed on heroin four times. She said the scariest overdose was the result of a fentanyl-laced batch. She said she had no idea it was laced, and almost died.

All four times Shuman says someone administered the overdose-reversing drug NARCAN on her. She said to finally recover, it took her telling everyone she knew she had a problem and needed help.

“I don’t care if I lose my job,” she said she told them, “You need to know this. I don’t care if you’re not my friend anymore, you have to know. Because, I didn’t want to die.”

Shuman first went to a Gateway Behavioral Health Crisis Center in Brunswick to get sober. Gateway has since built a center on Savannah’s southside. It’s a walk-in clinic for people who don’t have insurance. After fighting to get it funded, state officials said it couldn’t have come at a better time. Georgia Department of Behavioral Health Commissioner Judy Fitzgerald said, between COVID’s impact and a rise in fentanyl-laced drugs in Georgia and nationwide, demand is way up.

“What we’re seeing now is really what folks are calling the second pandemic,” Fitzgerald said.

The facility has been at full-capacity since it opened last year. Fitzgerald said county data shows a 10 percent diversion rate. Meaning, instead of going to jail or waiting in emergency rooms, those people ended-up in treatment.

“If a person has a mental illness or a substance use disorder, we want them to get to a place of treatment,” Fitzgerald said. “That’s what this is.”

The center’s Clinical Director, Sharon Smith, said she believes rehab centers like Gateway are a good use of taxpayer dollars.

“When you have someone get involved with treatment, you’re reducing that crisis in your own community. So, it really improves everything around you in your community,” Smith said.

Shuman added, as a longtime addict, she feels it might also help struggling addicts if there were a place to get things like clean needles and NARCAN.

“In the bigger cities, you see people that pass out NARCAN. You see needle exchanges. Right now, you can’t find clean needles around here. They won’t sell them to you!” Shuman said.

Shuman has a message for addicts and their loved ones.

“Fight! Fight hard. Because that is the option for us.”

Georgia has a Crisis and Access Line for people who need help. That number is 1-800-715-4225.

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