After starting in Augusta, wave of fentanyl overdoses spreading across Georgia

Updated: May. 17, 2021 at 7:33 AM EDT
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AUGUSTA, Ga. - In a trend first noticed in the CSRA, fentanyl overdoses are spreading across Georgia, with much of the deadly synthetic opioid coming in the form of counterfeit pills being billed as Xanax or Percocet.

Data from the Georgia Department of Health shows a spike in opioid-related deaths across the Peach State.

“When you look, opioid overdose deaths increased 58.3 percent,” said Cheryl Kolb, a public health educator in Georgia. “Fentanyl overdose deaths increased by 160.9%. That’s 160. 1-6-0.”

After most cases initially were found around Augusta, officials say they are finding overdose clusters around Savannah and Columbus. From Jan. 1 to April 19 in Chatham County, there were 336 suspected overdoses. That compares to 368 in all of last year. Officials say counterfeit pills also are being found in Chattahoochee, Dooly, Harris, Muscogee, Schley and Taylor counties.

The Georgia Department of Public Health warned of the problem in April.

That’s when the Georgia attorney general announced he was investigating overdoses in Richmond County that are blamed on counterfeit medications.

Counterfeit pills are manufactured illegally and without regulation and passed off as prescription medications and sold on the street. They often look very much like the legitimate pills, including logos and markings, but can be rougher-looking due to the rigors of being smuggled.

“They look very suspicious. The color isn’t the same. If you have a pill you can look up the imprint online. The imprint might be the right number, but the wrong font. There’s just something off about it,” Kolb said.

The danger is that in an unregulated environment run by drug cartels, the amount of fentanyl in these pills is unknown and can be inconsistent from one pill to the next, often leading to overdoses.

When federal authorities sampled tablets seized between January 2019 and March 2019, they found 27 percent contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl.

The Richmond County “cluster of overdoses” was a sign of an issue that’s been escalating since the start of the pandemic and first responders say it isn’t getting any better.

“It’s a scary trend we’re seeing that this is rising,” Steven Vincent, Gold Cross Emergency Medical Service vice president, told News 12 in April.

“Anywhere you think of, we’re responding. It’s everywhere. It’s all over the CSRA,” said Vincent.

He said rarely a day goes by where crews aren’t responding to an overdose call.

“There’s some days we get two or three and there’s other days we get 10 or more,” he said.

“What really worries us is that a lot of the patients we’re seeing, once you know we are able to stabilize them and talk to them. They didn’t realize what drug they were taking,” said Vincent.

The case of a local pill mill

Not all counterfeit pills are made abroad.

In November, two Burke County men were indicted on federal drug trafficking charges for operating an illegal pill factory, according to prosecutors.

Cedrick Gabriel Brown, a/k/a “Pop,” 47, and Telly Savalas Carswell, 46, both of Midville, were charged after the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration began an investigation with the Burke County Sheriff’s Office. A May 7 search of a home yielded a pill press along with methamphetamine, heroin and other drugs, nearly $9,000 in cash, and paraphernalia related to drug trafficking, according to prosecutors. After pleading guilty to a methamphetamine-trafficking conspiracy, Carswell was sentenced about a week ago to 168 months in prison. Brown awaits sentencing after pleading guilty to the same charge.

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