Opinion: Fentanyl deaths abound as legislature asked to consider overdose fatality review groups

Tommy Farmer/Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP / This undated photo shows fake Oxycodone pills made of extremely dangerous fentanyl that were seized and submitted to bureau crime labs.
Tommy Farmer/Tennessee Bureau of Investigation via AP / This undated photo shows fake Oxycodone pills made of extremely dangerous fentanyl that were seized and submitted to bureau crime labs.

A presentation to the Hamilton County legislative delegation last week on the need to support the Overdose Fatality Review Act included some stark statistics such as the approximate 14% climb in Hamilton County drug overdose deaths from 2021 to 2022.

Further, around 76% of overdose deaths, once final numbers are in, are expected to be related to the synthetic drug fentanyl.

On hearing those numbers, we would have liked all legislators present to have stood up and said they pledged to work on nothing else this session except the opioid scourge that is killing such an alarming and increasing number of people.

Of course, our desire was unrealistic. But we hope all legislators appreciate the gravity of the situation.

What those making the presentation are seeking is the ability for counties or regions to create multidisciplinary overdose fatality review teams. The idea is that such teams could obtain and review records related to all fatal overdoses to make recommendations on policy changes and resource allocation to prevent future overdoses.

It would function, Dr. Stephen Miller told those present last week, like the current state Child Fatality Review team, which is a multidisciplinary group of individuals from various occupations that affect child health and safety who collect information on child deaths to have a greater understanding of those deaths and to suggest any preventive measures that might be taken.

If legislators didn't appreciate the gravity of the opioid problem -- though we're quite sure they do -- they only had to read local news reports in the days following the presentation. All of the following were in Georgia, but they could have easily been in Tennessee.

› In Chickamauga last week, the commander of the Lookout Mountain Judicial Circuit Drug Task Force said more than a kilogram of fentanyl and a pill press had been seized. It was, officials said, the first pill press ever seized by the task force in North Georgia.

Consider this:

A kilo is equal to about 2.26 pounds. Just one kilogram of fentanyl, according to the Drug Enforcement Agency, can kill 500,000 people, making it 100 times more potent than morphine. For comparison sake, that's every person in Hamilton County, Bradley County and Sequatchie County combined, and then some.

"You can preach and hammer home all day long about how dangerous this drug is," said Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson, "but unfortunately the person addicted to these drugs won't listen to you. Addiction overcomes the mind."

› In Catoosa County on Sunday, three people overdosed on fentanyl and, fortunately, were revived because an opioid overdose antidote -- usually Naloxone, commonly called Narcan -- was administered in time.

Narcan is available over the counter at pharmacies and does not require a prescription. Typically it is available, according to state regulations, to people at risk of experiencing an opiate related overdose; family members, friends or other people in a position to assist a person at risk of experiencing an opiate-related overdose; or a school nurse, school resource officer or other trained school personnel. A licensed health care practitioner may require written communication that provides a factual basis why the prescription is needed.

The opioid antidote also is available at no charge from the Hamilton County Coalition, a nonprofit organization working to reduce, among other things, illicit and prescription drug abuse.

› In the Kensington community of Walker County on Monday, three people died from suspected fentanyl overdoses. Law enforcement officials said they received a call when the people were unresponsive. They speculated the victims died from inhaling or smoking the drug.

Wilson said no arrests had been made and that he had no leads on who might have supplied the fentanyl.

The supply in the area has increased lately, he said.

In Chattanooga, in less than a full month of 2023, Chattanooga Police Department officers responded to 56 overdoses. Of those, 14 people died. Since 2020, according to police, around 15% of all overdoses have been fatal.

The COVID-19 pandemic, experts have said, caused opioid use, and, thus, deaths, to soar.

In 2020, the Chattanooga police responded to 575 overdoses. That number increased 66% to 953 in 2021 and inched up to 959 in 2022.

The Overdose Fatality Review Act in the last legislative session passed -- with amendments -- the Senate Finance, Ways and Means Committee but never even got a subcommittee vote in the House. Its fiscal impact was said to be "not significant."

We suspect the fear of confidentiality being breached may be one reason the bill failed last year, but the new bill addresses confidentiality and states "a local team member or attendee who negligently discloses confidential information or who knowingly and willfully discloses the information [is] in violation of this act or state or federal law."

The current bill, we understand, won't end the opioid scourge, but if knowledgeable local officials meeting and considering local information can get a better handle on the whys and hows of deaths and overdoses they may be able to recommend measures that could help stem the tide.

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