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

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 Hamilton County’s approximately 14% increase in drug overdose deaths from 2021-2022.

In addition, around 76% of overdose deaths are expected to be related to the synthetic drug fentanyl once the final figures are available.

When we heard those numbers, we wished that all the Members present had stood up and said that they were committed not to work on anything else in this session than the scourge of opioids, which affects such an alarming and growing number of people kills people.

Of course, our wish was unrealistic. But we hope all lawmakers will recognize the seriousness of the situation.

What the presenters are looking for is the ability for counties or regions to form multidisciplinary teams to review overdose deaths. The idea is that such teams could receive and review records of all fatal overdoses to make recommendations on policy changes and resource allocations to prevent future overdoses.

It would work, said Dr. Stephen Miller told those in attendance last week how the current Child Fatality Review Team, a multidisciplinary group of people from different professions that impact child health and safety, collects information about child deaths to gain a better understanding of them fatalities and to suggest possible preventive measures that could be taken.

If lawmakers didn’t realize the seriousness of the opioid problem — although we’re pretty sure they do — all they had to do was read local news reports in the days following the presentation. All of the following were in Georgia, but they could have been in Tennessee as well.

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

Consider it:

One kilo equals about 2.26 pounds. According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, just one kilogram of fentanyl can kill 500,000 people, making it 100 times more potent than morphine. For comparison, that’s all of the people in Hamilton County, Bradley County, and Sequatchie County combined, plus a few more.

“You can preach all day and hammer home how dangerous this drug is,” Walker County Sheriff Steve Wilson said, “but unfortunately the person who is addicted to these drugs is not listening to you. Addiction overcomes the mind.”

› In Catoosa County on Sunday, three people overdosed on fentanyl and were happily resuscitated because an opioid overdose antidote — usually naloxone, commonly called narcan — was timely administered.

Narcan is available over the counter in pharmacies and does not require a prescription. It is usually available as per government regulations for those at risk of an opiate-related overdose. family members, friends or others who are able to help a person at risk of an opiate overdose; or a school nurse, school resource officer, or other trained school personnel. A licensed health practitioner may request written notification that provides a factual basis as to why the prescription is needed.

The opioid antidote is also available free of charge from the Hamilton County Coalition, a non-profit organization dedicated to reducing the abuse of illegal and prescription drugs, among other things.

Three people died Monday from a suspected fentanyl overdose in Walker County, Kensington. Police officers said they received a call when people were unresponsive. They speculated that the victims died from inhaling or smoking the drug.

Wilson said no arrests were made and he had no leads as to who might have supplied the fentanyl.

Supply in the area has increased recently, he said.

In Chattanooga, Chattanooga Police Department officials responded to 56 drug overdoses in less than a full month of 2023. Of these, 14 people died. According to the police, around 15% of all overdoses have been fatal since 2020.

According to experts, the COVID-19 pandemic has boosted opioid use and thus the number of deaths.

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

The Overdose Fatality Review Act was passed — with amendments — by the Senate Finance, Ways and Appropriations Committee during the last legislative session, but it didn’t even get a subcommittee vote in the House of Representatives. Its fiscal impact was described as “not significant”.

We suspect fear of a breach of confidentiality might be a reason the bill failed last year, but the new bill addresses confidentiality, stating “a local team member or participant who negligently or knowingly discloses confidential information.” and willfully reveals [is] in violation of this statute or any state or federal law.”

We understand that the current bill will not end the opioid scourge, but if knowledgeable local officials, meeting and considering local information, can get a better handle on the why and how of deaths and overdoses, they may be able to recommend actions to which might help stem the tides.

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