The Forsyth County News spent a year looking into the recent rise of heroin overdoses and what is being done locally to combat the causes at their root. The result was this six-part series. http://www.forsythnews.com/archives/27075/
Equipping school campuses with medication that can save drug overdose victims has become a priority in the local fight against heroin and prescription painkiller abuse.
“Right now, I’m coalition-building among doctors, pharmacists, police chiefs, politicians and students from about six public universities in Georgia,” said Jeremy Sharp, who founded the Students for Sensible Drug Policy chapter at the University of North Georgia. “We are devising ways to equip every university police department with Naloxone.”
Naloxone has a 98 percent success rate in reversing the effects of opioid overdoses and preventing overdose deaths, according to studies.
“We just had a report of an opioid reversal at a University of Georgia fraternity a few weeks ago,” Sharp said.
The need to expand access to the medication is evident in the opioid abuse crisis afflicting communities across the United States.
Drug overdoses are now more deadly than car crashes or gunshots, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
More than 47,000 Americans died in 2014 from a drug overdose, of which more than 28,000 were opioid related.
The CDC calls prescription drug abuse an epidemic, with overdose deaths from opiate painkillers more common than heroin and cocaine combined.
And the CDC reports that heroin abuse or dependence has climbed 90 percent over the last decade, and deaths from overdoses quadrupled during that period.
The Georgia Bureau of Investigation tracks overdose deaths in 153 of 159 Georgia counties (Hall and metro Atlanta counties not included), and has documented a major spike in heroin-related deaths in recent years.
For example, statewide three overdose deaths were reported in 2010, 13 in 2011, 16 in 2012, 32 in 2013, 61 in 2014 and at least 67 in 2015.
“There still remains 65 reports that have not been signed out, so that figure could change as the reports are completed,” GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said.
The drug overdose rate in Hall County is higher than the statewide average, according to CDC figures, and the same is true for most counties in Northeast Georgia.
Overdose-related calls to the Hall County emergency 911 line actually decreased from 387 in 2014 to 295 calls made in 2015.
There have been 109 overdose calls so far in 2016, with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office responding to 68 of them.
And Naloxone has been used in two instances since the Sheriff’s Office began acquiring the medication last summer, according to spokeswoman Nicole Bailes.
“One deployment was successful and the other was not,” she said.
The Sheriff’s Office has trained its patrol officers, school resource officers and first responders to administer Naloxone through the nose or via injection.
Sharp said it is important to equip law enforcement to carry Naloxone in their vehicles since they are often first on the scene.
“We will be asking the Board of Regents to expand and equip every university police officer with Naloxone,” he added.
Hall County Fire Services has administered Naloxone to 33 patients since Jan. 1, with 22 patients showing improvement, according to county spokeswoman Katie Crumley.
And the Gainesville Police Department teamed with the Medical Association of Georgia Foundation to acquire 82 Naloxone kits earlier this year, and already a male subject's life has been saved from an overdose as a result, according to spokesman Kevin Holbrook.
The Georgia Overdose Prevention, a grassroots organization advocating for drug policy reform, has tracked Naloxone saves across the state, with 446 documented cases among “laymen” who have been trained and equipped to use the medication.
Meanwhile, the organization reports 62 documented cases of overdose reversals among law enforcement agencies.
“But we believe these numbers to be lower than the actual count,” Sharp said. “We are working with the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police to gather a more accurate data set on the total reversals among Georgia's police departments.”
Miles said the GBI has launched a “heroin working group” to better track drug overdose figures by consolidating data and implementing a uniform reporting policy with the aim of preventing and treating drug abuse.
Sharp is also working on expanding medical amnesty policies in school disciplinary actions.
“Our goal is to present a statewide medical amnesty policy at all 29 public universities to the Board of Regents,” Sharp said.
State lawmakers passed a bill in 2014 that provides legal protection for individuals who call 911 and seek medical assistance for a drug overdose.
The caller and victim are free from arrest or prosecution for the possession of small amounts of drugs if the evidence was obtained as a result of seeking medical help, according to Georgia Overdose Prevention.
“We are getting reports back from various institutions that students are not facing legal retribution when they call for help in a drug or alcohol overdose,” Sharp said. “However, on the institutional level, students who do the right thing by seeking help are often facing disciplinary action at their respective institutions. The discrepancy between state law and individual institutional policy is proving to be harmful.”