Overdoses surge this week

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An alarming surge in overdoses this week in Knox County has authorities scrambling to find ways to save lives as street drugs continue to grow ever more potent.

A Tuesday bulletin from the Knox County Health Department that was issued to various agencies on the front line of the opiate epidemic said there has been “a significant increase in overdoses.”

In fact, the bulletin said, between noon Tuesday and 4 p.m. Wednesday, no fewer than 25 people had overdosed in Knoxville and Knox County. 

“EMS partners have indicated that the majority of these were coded as heroin overdoses,” the bulletin said. “We suspect that fentanyl or fentanyl analogues are involved.  We are also aware that Anderson County is seeing a similar pattern and increase in overdoses.”

Only two of the overdose victims died, as the majority were saved by the timely intervention of first responders or other people equipped with Narcan, a rescue medication that can reverse the effects of opiates, sources said.

Crews from the Knoxville Fire Department and AMR Ambulance Service carry Narcan with them at all times, and as the opiate epidemic has intensified in recent years they’ve found themselves using it on a daily basis.

“We’ve clearly noticed an uptick,” KFD Assistant Chief Mark Wilbanks said Thursday. “Obviously, we will still continue to run these type of calls as we have in the past. It is unfortunate that we are having to run these types of calls when it could possibly take us away from another emergency. If the illicit drugs were not a issue we could be available for other type incidents. But we do and will continue to respond to these incidents.”

Since 2017, at least 2,149 people have lost their lives in Knox County due to overdoses. To put that number into perspective, more people in Knox County have died from the opiate epidemic than from COVID, the Spanish Flu, and both world wars combined. 

Authorities say that 533 of those deaths took place in 2021, while this year’s death toll stood at 409 as of Thursday.

It’s not clear what’s driving this week’s spike in overdoses. Officials from the Health Department didn’t return calls seeking comment, but experts from other local agencies said that an unusually potent batch of fentanyl was the most likely cause.

For most of the 2000s and early 2010s, the majority of overdose deaths were caused by legal opiates like morphine and oxycodone. When the federal government cracked down on how opiates could be prescribed in the mid-2010s, both addicts and many legitimate pain patients turned to the black market and found that heroin was just as effective and far less expensive. 

As time passed, however, the illicit makers of heroin began to replace the drug with fentanyl, which is stronger and cheaper to manufacture. This decision made the black market opiate supply more dangerous by an order of magnitude, as it was harder to accurately measure a safe dose. Today, virtually all of the so-called “heroin” available on Knoxville’s streets is fentanyl that’s imported from the Detroit, Michigan area by criminal street gangs.

(Source: Metro Drug Coalition)

Jason Goodman, director of recovery support services for the Metro Drug Coalition, said the agency was responding to the current crisis by ensuring that anyone in the community who wants Narcan can easily obtain it by simply coming by MPC’s Gateway community center on West Fifth Avenue. 

“If someone needs Narcan, they can come here and get trained to use it and then leave with it,” he said.

The facility also provides a wide array of support services for recovering addicts that includes recovery meetings, art or music therapy, and referrals to treatment programs. 

Jessica Stanley, MPC’s regional overdose prevention specialist, said that regular strength units of Narcan are often ineffective when used to combat some of the fentanyl that’s available on the streets right now. To counter them, Stanley said that MPC is now distributing Kloxxado, which carries twice the punch as a regular unit of Narcan.

“So far, according to what we’ve heard, it’s working,” she said. 

In a typical month, MPC distributes about 1,200 units of Kloxxado and another 600 to 700 units of Narcan, she explained.

When asked who needs to carry an overdose kit, Stanley paused for a moment before saying, “Everybody. Everybody needs to have one.”

Published on November 4, 2022.