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Fentanyl fuels deadliest year ever for overdoses in Georgia county

Published: Jan. 31, 2022 at 1:10 PM EST
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SAVANNAH, Ga. (WTOC) - The powerful drug Fentanyl is fueling a record-setting number of overdose deaths in Georgia and South Carolina. Despite warnings, officials say they expect even more people to die in 2022. And they say many of those people won’t even realize what they’re taking until it’s too late.

In this WTOC exclusive report, our Investigative team obtained preliminary numbers that show 2021 was the worst year on record for opioid overdoses in our area.

According to the Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team (CNT), overdose deaths nearly doubled in Chatham County last year, from 26 in 2020 to 48 in 2021. CNT Director Michael Sarhatt said those numbers are not final, because they are still waiting on final autopsy results from other state agencies. Meaning, that number could still grow.

DEA agent Robert Murphy says the crisis is fueled by fentanyl.

“They’re not accidental. These are poisonings,” Murphy said.

Murphy, the Special Agent in Charge of the Atlanta Division of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), overseas the agency’s operations in Georgia, South Carolina and North Carolina.

Murphy believes China is behind the epidemic.

“China knows the chemicals they’re sending,” Murphy said. “They know what the outcome is going to be. The Mexican cartels that are producing it and shipping it across our border know what the outcome is going to be.”

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 100,000 people died from overdoses in the U.S. between May 2020 and April 2021. That’s up from 78,000 the year before. The health agency reported 64 percent of those deaths were caused by synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl. Murphy says fentanyl is devastating families across Georgia and South Carolina.

Statesboro police reported that during the first three days of December, three people overdosed and died. Fentanyl was connected to all three deaths.

It’s something Jerry Scott is all too familiar with.

“Fentanyl is the drug on the street now,” Scott said.

Scott runs Statesboro’s Reliance Treatment Center. A recovering addict himself, Scott says he watched a close friend overdose and die from heroin when they were just 15. It pushed him to get clean and give back. He says most of his patients got hooked on prescription pain medication first.

Scott says they are hard-working people, who just want their lives back. It’s why he takes overdose deaths personally.

“I’ve heard some folks say, ‘well, the world is better off now.’ They’re good people. The folks we work with are good people. They just made a bad decision,” he said.

This month, Statesboro’s city council gave the police department a $20,000 grant to buy 560 doses of the overdose-reversing drug NARCAN.

“Having more is always better,” said Statesboro Police Captain Jared Akins. Akins leads the department’s counter-narcotics unit. He says fentanyl is so common now that if you buy drugs on the street, you should expect them to be laced.

“I don’t know if the people who are making these purchases always understand, that there’s really nothing anymore that’s pure,” Akins said.

DEA agent Murphy says protecting kids from fentanyl is their top priority. He says a big part of that is holding social media giants accountable for what people sell on their platforms.

“You name it: Instagram, Snapchat, all of them are basically just open drug markets now. Anybody can go online and get it,” he said.

Everyone we talked to agrees that the Fentanyl crisis is only getting worse.

“As long as people make money on it, they are going to find a way to market it,” Scott said.

“Unfortunately, the demand now is for something that... it doesn’t take much to kill you, added Akins.

The DEA says there are some signs that you can look for to determine if a pill is counterfeit:

  1. Unsmooth edges
  2. Craters on the outside
  3. Letters/numbers that don’t look right

They say while you can’t see fentanyl - if the pill is fake, it’s probably laced with it.

If you find yourself with someone who’s experiencing an overdose, you can call police without getting in trouble, thanks to Georgia’s 911 amnesty law.

The recent surge in overdose deaths and suicides in rural areas - is pushing some Georgia lawmakers, to take-action.

State lawmakers introduced a proposal today to improve two areas of the state’s mental health system.

  1. First, they want to ask private insurance companies to cover depression, anxiety and other disorders... treating them the exact same as other medical conditions.
  2. The plan also puts more funding towards treatment and crisis services.

WTOC will track this policy once it’s officially introduced.

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