Public Health

Jefferson County Drug Overdose Deaths Hit New Peak in 2022

Narcan is a brand of drug that’s used to treat opioid overdoses. (Photo by Miranda Fulmore, WBHM)

While homicides have drawn a lot of attention in recent years, Jefferson County Chief Deputy Coroner Bill Yates said something else is killing more people: drug overdoses, especially those involving fentanyl.

“It’s a category of death that I don’t see slowing down,” said Yates. “Even if it plateaus out, we’re plateauing out at a level that compared to 2014 is double what we used to have.”

In 2022, drug overdose deaths topped gun and vehicle-related deaths investigated by the Jefferson County Coroner and Medical Examiner’s Office.

Preliminary data show at least 417 confirmed drug fatalities and an additional 31 suspected drug overdose deaths. The final data is expected to be released in April.

Roughly 86% of last year’s confirmed overdose deaths involved opioids, with the majority including the highly lethal drug fentanyl.

This graph shows the number of overdose deaths caused by opioids over the past 10 years. Preliminary data shows that at least 356 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2022. At least 417 people died in 2022 from all overdose deaths. That number is expected to grow, said Chief Deputy Coroner Bill Yates.

Before 2019, overdose deaths in the county were largely among white men between the ages of 40 and 49. But the spread of fentanyl shifted the overdose demographics, Yates said. That’s because toxicology reports by the coroner’s office have found the drug mixed in with other potent drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine.

“(In 2022,) Black males have now surpassed white males for drug overdoses, and that’s never happened,” he said. “You’ve still got this addiction issue, and what’s scary now is that you’ve introduced a new community into it. I just don’t see it ending,” he said.

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, it takes very little to produce a high with fentanyl, making it a cheaper option for producers. Others say the addictive qualities of fentanyl create more customers.

On the other hand, some argue illicit drug makers are actually killing both their workers and drug users. Yates said there’s mixed information on whether people who use drugs illegally know that they’re buying products that include fentanyl.

“Fentanyl causes addiction — much more than say cocaine would,” he said. “You can’t just pull out the fentanyl and the problem is gone because (addiction) is a disease, and that’s got to be treated.”

Since these drugs are usually manufactured illegally, every batch is different. Yates said that’s why someone can take one dose and survive, and another time take the same amount and die.

The coroner’s office mostly sees fentanyl mixed with meth or cocaine. Drug overdose deaths involving heroin and pills are less likely now than they used to be. Yates said it’s difficult to tell whether marijuana is laced with fentanyl. Cannabis can stay in the body for months at a time, so the presence of the drug can’t be directly linked to an overdose. Yates added they do not test for marijuana.

In addition to fentanyl, investigators are finding other drugs such as the horse tranquilizer xylazine.

“But it’s not the player that cocaine, methamphetamine or fentanyl is,” Yates said. “We’re continuing to see (xylazine), but it’s sporadic.”

He warns that the Southeast is often behind other areas of the country when it comes to drug trends, and he doesn’t expect the county’s overdose deaths to improve in the near term.

The Jefferson County Department of Health offers free fentanyl test strips and naloxone kits, which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. To learn more about having free test strips and kits shipped to your home, visit this link.