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Overdose deaths hit national record highs; Tennessee could be on pace for its own record

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Posted at 9:29 PM, Jul 15, 2021

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — It’s the epidemic you may have heard little about in 2020, but we now know drug overdoses claimed more than 93,000 lives that year.

The Centers for Disease Control says this increase of nearly 30 percent from the year before is the highest number of deaths in twelve months. It’s also the largest increase since 1999.

Trevor Henderson is the director of Metro Nashville’s Overdose Response Program. He says it wasn’t long ago that 300 deaths across Davidson County were cause for alarm.

Last year alone, that number more than doubled with 619 people who lost their lives to overdose in Davidson County. Henderson says it’s important to note that this number is not limited to residents of Davidson County. There are some cases where individuals are transported to the county from another hospital in the state and die.

Suspected Fatal Drug Overdoses:

  • Nashville saw a 32% increase in fatal drug overdoses in 2020 compared to the year prior, with 468 suspected drug overdose deaths in 2019 and 619 in 2020. So far this year, there have been 360 fatal overdoses, up 11% compared to the same time last year.
  • Last year, 80% of overdose-related toxicology reports detected fentanyl.
  • In 2020, the highest number of deaths occurred in the following ZIP codes:
    • 37207
    • 37115
    • 37211
    • 37013
    • 37209
  • The ZIP codes with the largest increase in deaths compared to 2019 are 37209, up 167%, 37210, up 156%, and 37217, up 83%.

Nonfatal Drug Overdose-related Emergency Department Visits:

  • Visits were up 30% in 2020 compared to 2019.
  • In 2019, more than half of these visits, 57%, involved heroin but in 2020, 50% involved opioids (without heroin) and 45% involved heroin.
  • In 2020, the highest number of drug overdoses requiring EMS response occurred in the following ZIP codes:
    • 37115
    • 37211
    • 37013
    • 37214
  • The ZIP codes with the largest increase in overdose incidents compared to 2019 are 37214, up 85%, 37076, up 57%, and 37210, up 57%.

Henderson says at this rate, we could top 700 for the first time in the county and it’s an issue he says is only made worse because of fentanyl.

“When you ask what’s my concern. I think that’s pretty obvious. This crisis has become much more deadly,” Henderson said.

The synthetic opioid can be found in virtually any drug and it doesn’t help that it’s one of the deadliest when abused. Henderson says for Tennessee to make any progress, we have to think of this as a public health crisis.

“It’s like a lot of other chronic health care conditions. A system of care needs to be built. We have a lot of the pieces, but it’s not a system that is seamless just yet,” Henderson said.

Henderson says ideally we should see Narcan kits offered to overdose survivors as they leave the hospital. That way they have a life-saving tool already available. He says work is already underway to make this a reality at local emergency rooms.

Tennessee has not released its numbers for 2020 overdose deaths, but the CDC already predicts an increase of more than 40 percent from 2019. Only nine other states had predictions that high according to their data. In 2019, Tennessee had 2,089 overdose deaths. None of these numbers surprise Tanja Jacobs.

“It just shows that this is worse than most people think,” Jacobs said.

Her son Romello Marchman died of an overdose in 2020, but Jacobs calls it fentanyl poisoning. Her son ingested what he thought was cocaine, only for a medical examiner to discover it was laced with fentanyl. She says no one intends on taking this highly potent drug, so it’s poisoning at the very least. Murder at it's most extreme.

“All you can do is tell people how dangerous it is and for people not to get complacent and think that their kids don’t do it,” Jacobs said.

Through the Romello Marchman Foundation, Jacobs has advocated for distributing fentanyl test strips as a life-saving measure. These strips have proven to help detect some trace amounts of fentanyl in most drugs. Jacobs says she’s coordinating with national distributors to bring more of these strips to Davidson County.

Under current Tennessee law, fentanyl test strips could be considered drug paraphernalia. Henderson says his office is working with Davidson County DA Glenn Funk’s office to decriminalize the distribution of these strips.

Jacobs understands these may be long-term solutions, but she says we can begin with a public service announcement just as we did with COVID-19. With the number of overdose deaths continuing to rise, she says it only makes sense to share what’s at stake if we can’t find a solution.

“We’re looking at shocking numbers now. We’re projecting more shocking numbers for this year. Next year, who knows where we’ll be,” Henderson said.