Once they reach a final tally, Health Department officials expect that around 200 Hamilton County residents will have died from fatal overdoses in 2022, an increase over the 176 deaths that occurred in the prior year.
About three-quarters of those fatalities have fentanyl listed as the cause of death.
Hoping to better coordinate efforts among local partners, the Hamilton County Health Department is asking the local legislative delegation to support changes in state law that would allow the department to form an overdose fatality review team that could gather and analyze private health information without it being subject to public records law.
It was one of a series of priorities that county officials outlined during a breakfast Friday morning at the Construction Career Center. Those priorities ranged from setting a minimum font size for documents submitted with the register of deeds office to adopting a more tailored approach to serving the county's growing Latino student population.
"We at the Health Department get all the medical examiner reports in of people who have overdoses," Carleena Angwin, the department's director of community health services, told an assembled crowd of state legislators, county commissioners and government staff. "It's very disheartening, and there are a lot of similarities."
Dr. Stephen Miller, the department's health officer, said the overdose fatality review team would be structured similarly to another local group that evaluates child fatalities. It meets regularly to discuss recommendations for addressing risks like sudden infant death syndrome.
Angwin said other overdose fatality review teams across the nation generally consist of public health experts, representatives from social services organizations, members of the criminal justice system, first responders and people with lived experiences.
"It's a large multiagency group that gets together and reviews the death data," she said.
Angwin said state legislators denied an earlier version of the bill last year because of the cost. An amended version of the Overdose Fatality Review Act has been filed this year.
The Hamilton County Health Department did recently try to get an overdose review team formed in Hamilton County, Angwin said, but providers were concerned about the legal liability posed by sharing sensitive health information in a setting subject to public records law.
Under the proposed bill, Tennessee counties would compile information gathered during these meetings and send that to a state coordinator, Angwin said, who would assemble a report that would be made available to the public.
Hamilton County Mayor Weston Wamp, meanwhile, prioritized workforce development in his remarks to legislators on Friday. The mayor also hopes to see leaders make more accommodations for the county's growing Latino population.
Over the past 10 years, he said, the Latino population has grown about 23% nationwide. In Hamilton County, it has jumped 81%, Wamp said, and almost 20% of the county's public school students are now Hispanic. Many of them are second-language learners who often come to the country as unaccompanied teenagers.
"They've got a very unique set of challenges, and the way we educate them and lift them up into the workforce is going to have to take a unique set of solutions that really aren't provided for under state law," he said.
Wamp said in an interview after the meeting that Latino students in Hamilton County generally fall into two categories. The first group are those that have spent most if not all of their life in the United States. They are fluent in English and accustomed to a classroom setting.
The second group, which Wamp said grew significantly during the pandemic, are newcomers who come from places like Guatemala or Southern Mexico. Many speak almost no English, Wamp said, and don't have experience in a formal, educational setting.
"Tennessee law doesn't really provide for a student in that unique setting," he said. "(At) 15 or 16 years old, they're automatically being placed into classes based on their age. It's unfair to expect them to be able to learn and also unfair to expect a teacher to proficiently teach a student algebra, for example, when that student is nowhere near proficient in English."
Wamp said he and Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Justin Robertson have talked with state legislators about creating a pilot program that would serve these students in a more customized manner.