Drug overdoses continue to increase in Georgia, but the COVID-19 pandemic saw a meteoric rise in deaths, according to the Georgia Department of Public Health.

This story also appeared in Georgia Public Broadcasting

A major factor in the worsening opioid epidemic is fentanyl, which is several times more potent than heroin. The deadly substance can be found in all street drugs, not just painkillers.

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation found fentanyl in counterfeit Adderall and Xanax, as well as in cocaine.

“Some drug users seek fentanyl for the high and the low price,” said the DPH’s Laura Edison, “but oftentimes drug users are not aware that they’re taking fentanyl, and only one pill can kill if you have the wrong pill.”

The amount of fentanyl on the streets also surged.

In 2020, the Drug Enforcement Agency seized about 3,400 fentanyl doses. Last year, that number skyrocketed to more than 70,000. 

Fentanyl-related overdose deaths have spiked since the start of the pandemic, rising more than 106% between May 2020 and April 2021.

When comparing the years between 2019 and 2021 in Georgia, all drug overdose deaths increased by 56%, but fentanyl-involved overdose deaths increased by 218%, Edison said.

“That represents over 1,200 lives lost,” she said.

fentanyl test strips
 Two fentanyl test strips showing positive results. Photo courtesy Riley Kirkpatrick/Access Point of Georgia Inc. via Georgia Recorder

Those lost Georgians are still predominantly white people aged 25 to 54, but the Black population is seeing a 252% spike in fentanyl overdose deaths whereas white people are experiencing a 213% rise.

Many people who use drugs are not aware of the dangers of fentanyl, Edison said.

FentanylAwarenessDay.org has some great educational resources,” she said.

Additionally, Edison said the DPH wants to make sure the public knows about naloxone, and the standing order that they can get it at any pharmacy.

“We need to get naloxone into more hands and we need to make sure people know about medical amnesty,” Edison said. “That they can call 911 and not be prosecuted if they or somebody they’re with has been taking illicit drugs.”

Fentanyl test strips are now legal in Georgia, too.

The Georgia Crisis and Access Line is available 24/7 by calling 1-800-715-4225.

This story comes to The Current GA through a reporting partnership with GPB News, a non-profit newsroom covering the state of Georgia.

Ellen Eldridge is a reporter for Georgia Public Broadcasting.