U.S. Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) convened an Opioid Summit at Dunwoody City Hall on May 1. Panelists included federal law enforcement, a CDC expert and a woman who started a drug rehabilitation facility called The Zone in Cobb County following her son’s death from an overdose.

“The purpose of this is for all of us in the Sixth District and metro Atlanta to be united and understanding what is happening in our communities and our state and the impact it is having on our families,” Handel said.

U.S. Rep. Karen Handel (R-Ga.) held an opioid summit May 1 at Dunwoody City Hall. Panelists included, from left, Dan Salter, executive director of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area; Bill Trivelpiece, also of HIDTA; and Dr. Rita Noonan of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (Dyana Bagby)

“What strikes me is that no one is immune. There is no discrimination based on age, race, ZIP code or even income levels,” she added. “Behind the numbers and statistics are real people.”

Overdose deaths caused by opioids, including heroin and prescription drugs, continue to rise across the U.S. and north Atlanta. Some statistics shared at the summit reflected the seriousness of the crisis.

The Centers for Disease Control & Prevention has reported that between August 2016 and August 2017, 45,200 deaths were caused by opioids in the U.S., accounting for 67.1 percent of all overdose deaths during the period.

In Georgia in 2016, there were 996 overdose deaths caused by opioids, representing 68.8 percent of all drug overdose deaths in the state, according to a special report from the Atlanta Regional Commission. The ARC also reports that of the overdose deaths statewide in 2016, 595 involved prescription opioids, a more than tenfold increase since 1999.

The ARC also reported that the death rate for opioid-related overdoses in metro Atlanta is higher than that of the state of Georgia and that Cobb County has experienced a dramatic increase in prescription opioid deaths, rising from eight in 2013 to 61 in 2016 — the most in the 10-county region. Fulton County had the second-highest number of deaths at 47, according to the ARC.

At the summit, Georgia Attorney General Chris Carr, a Dunwoody resident, explained how his office is working to combat the deaths caused by opioids, such as the illegal drug heroin and legal prescription drugs.

“The challenge we have is many opioids are legal … and people need them for a legitimate reason. And if used with supervision, they can be useful,” he said. Legal opioids include Oxycontin, hydrocodone, codeine and also fentanyl, which law enforcement and others say they are seeing more often mixed in with illegal drugs.

In Georgia from June 2016 through May 2017, there were 541 million opioid prescriptions written by physicians.

“That is 54 doses for every man, woman and child in the state,” Carr said. “At a minimum, these numbers have to raise eyebrows.”

Partners included on a Statewide Opioid Task Force begun last year include the Atlanta and Dunwoody police departments, the Fulton County Commission and Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta.

The CDC in 2016 issued a report outlining guidelines for primary care clinicians on when and how long to prescribe opioids as a way to help slow the rapid prescription rates.

Naloxone, also known as Narcan, can be injected or sprayed into the nose of an overdose victim to revive them. Last year, Gov. Nathan Deal signed a bill into law making naloxone legal to purchase over the counter.

Bill Trivelpiece, of the federal High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area office in Atlanta, recommended parents with children buy naloxone.
“If you got kids, and your kids got friends, please get naloxone,” he said.

Other takeaways included people buying a “drug lock box” available at many retail stores to keep prescription drugs locked up and out of the hands of people not using them.

Funding to law enforcement to fight illegal drugs coming in from Mexico must also be maintained, Handel said. But incarcerating drug addicts is not always useful, she said, and more work needs to be done to create rehab centers in metro Atlanta where addicts can get the support they need to stay off drugs.

A key priority also, she said, is to ensure prescriptions for opioids are necessary and for physicians and patients to consider other ways to treat pain if possible. Handel mentioned during the summit she had personal experience with opioid addiction but declined to comment further. In a statement, she said the fight against opioid addiction must also ensure there are no unintended consequences for those who require opioid-based pain management, such as cancer patients.

Coping with a Crisis: Opioid addiction in the suburbs

Earlier this year, the Reporter published “Coping with a Crisis: Opioid Addiction in the Suburbs,” an exclusive four-part series looking at how local families, nurses, prosecutors, recovering addicts and others are responding to a growing epidemic that already kills more people than cars, guns or breast cancer each year.

For the first story, about families using obituaries to tell the harsh truth of loved ones’ overdose deaths, click here. For the second story, about a Dunwoody man who runs treatment facilities for opioid users after surviving eight overdoses and facing prison time, click here. For the third story, about how a suburban mother started peddling fentanyl and became the target of federal prosecutors, click here. For the final story, about local schools deciding whether to carry an antidote to opioid overdoses, click here. The results of a community survey about opioid addiction’s effects on local residents, families and relationships are available here. For a local emergency department doctor’s overview of the opioid crisis, click here

Dyana Bagby is a staff writer for Reporter Newspapers and Atlanta Intown.