Story by Shannon Taylor Senior Investigative Reporter
In a health council meeting on Jan. 11, Weakley County Prevention Coalition’s Regional Overdose Prevention Specialist Melesa Lassiter spoke on overdoses in the county. From 2012 to 2017, prescription opioids were involved in most of the overdose deaths in Tennessee. Deaths due to prescription opioids declined from 2016 to 2019, while deaths due to illicit substances like heroin, fentanyl and stimulants increased dramatically. In 2021, almost three out of four overdose deaths involved fentanyl.
The overdose death rate in Tennessee in 2017 was 1,264 and looking at data from 2021 the death rate has spiked almost triple that amount to 3,814 Tennesseans who died of a drug overdose which represented a 26% increase from 2020. Deaths involving fentanyl have risen 36% from the 2020-2021 data received with 2,734 fentanyl deaths statewide. 2,025 deaths involved a stimulant which is a 54% increase from 2020. 167 deaths involved heroin, a 50% decrease from 2020 and 645 deaths involved prescription pain relievers, an 8% increase from 2020. In 2017 Tennessee had 19% of overdoses deaths involving both an opioid and a stimulant. In 2021, 94% of stimulant involved deaths involved fentanyl. In 2021 it jumped to 41% of deaths that involved a stimulant.
Weakley County had 7 total overdose deaths that were confirmed with either an autopsy or toxicology test in 2021. The cause of the overdose deaths were as follows: two involving fentanyl, one involving heroin, five involving a psychostimulant, and three involving multiple combined substances. Weakley County also had a total of 71 Nonfatal overdoses that were treated in an outpatient setting in 2020, primarily emergency room visits. That number does not account for law enforcement, fire departments or EMS showing up to administer naloxone and that person refusing to go to the hospital. Weakley County had 28, 364 prescription opioids (Pain medications) filled within the county in 2021. That number has trended down from the year prior. Meaning that one in every six residents received an opioid prescription.
Nitazene is a new opioid trend that has been found in Tennessee. Nitazene is a very powerful synthetic opioid and does respond to naloxone use but may require more doses. Nitazene has been responsible for 52 deaths in Tennessee from 2019-2021. 100% of those deaths involved multiple substances such as fentanyl or meth.
During the Weakley County Health Council Meeting, Lassiter spoke on the new 2021 data trend for both the state of TN and local county, however she wants to remind everyone that data is someone’s family, friend, or loved one. The grant TN: Save A Life is here to help SAVE A LIFE. She is encouraging everyone to learn the signs and symptoms of an opioid and stimulant overdose. She also encourages everyone to know how to save a life with using Naloxone. Naloxone is a rescue medication to be used in the cause of an opioid overdose. The training materials include the following: trends in our local counties, stigma, harm reduction, opioid, stimulant, and overdose prevention. Through these trainings with the TN: Save A Life grant the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services (TDMHSAS) has data to support more than 53,000 lives have been saved from on overdose since October 2017 through December 2022. If you are interested in more information or to schedule a training, please contact Melesa Lassiter (731) 819-7603.
General Sessions Judge Tommy Moore spoke on how fentanyl cases are handled differently than other cases saying that, “We haven’t had many cases that have been disposed of yet. We’ve had some arrests and some arraignments, but only two or three have been pled out. Some of them may have been passed up to Circuit, but we haven’t dealt with many yet. I know it’s out there and we’re arraigning more and more people that have been charged with possession but I discussed with the DA just briefly if they had seen where there was any change on the law on it but I don’t think the legislature has dealt with fentanyl yet as far as mandatory sentences. With no mandatory sentence out there, it’s just left up to each individual case and I would think that the recommendation of the state would be for it to match the way we deal with the meth, although that hasn’t been discussed yet.” Meth holds a 30-day mandatory sentencing. Moore said that they would be dealing with it in the same way as meth even though the state hasn’t mandated anything.
The DEA announced in Dec. 2022 that their administration seized over 379 million deadly doses of fentanyl in 2022 and they alerted the public to an increase in the lethality of fentanyl. The DEA seized more than double the amount in 2022 than they did in 2021. The Louisville, KY DEA, which includes Kentucky, Tennessee and West Virginia, reported that more than 184,382 fentanyl laced fake prescription pills, and more than 316 pounds of fentanyl powder was confiscated by them in 2022. The DEA has created a Faces of Fentanyl memorial to commemorate the lives lost from fentanyl poisoning, which has become a sad reality for the nation. To share a photo of a lost loved one send their name, age and photograph to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The DEA has observed Aug. 21 as National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day, which was established in remembrance of lost loved ones and acknowledge the devastation the drug has brought to affected family members and friends.
TDMHSAS marks May 10 as Fentanyl Awareness Day, which is a day to remember those lost due to fentanyl poisoning and to raise awareness of resources and information to save lives. The DEA estimates that four out of every ten counterfeit pills sold on the street contain a lethal dose of fentanyl.
The State Department recently released new data regarding fentanyl exposure which states that illicit fentanyl cannot be absorbed through the skin or by touching an item or surface where it is present, nor can it be absorbed through the skin if it’s been dissolved in liquid, contrary to media and law enforcement reports that have circulated previously.
Tennessee Redline is a referral service for addiction treatment for people looking for help. They can be reached at 1-800-889-9789.