In the battle to combat ever-increasing opioid addiction and overdose deaths, more bad news surfaces for Knox County: Suspected overdose deaths are not only higher than they've ever been, they're far ahead of last year's pace.
According to Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen, 108 deaths were tied to suspected overdoses as of May 1 this year. This time last year, that number was 60.
There's no sign that suspected overdose deaths have peaked, either.
"We knew this was coming, we knew we were spiking," Allen told 10News on Wednesday. "We knew this was going to be a wave like we'd never seen. But our numbers are pointing out we're dealing with it every day."
Most of these deaths are believed to be from the drug fentanyl.
According to the National Institute for Drug Abuse, fentanyl is a powerful prescription opioid typically given to patients to treat severe pain after surgery. The drug is typically administered and regulated through time-release methods, so the difference between a therapeutic dose and a deadly dose when taken directly through injections is extremely small.
Special Agent in Charge Tommy Farmer leads the TBI's dangerous drug task force.
He says fentanyl is hard for law enforcement to stop because it's moved in small amounts and it's a drug that has many analogs. In other words, many versions of a similar chemical compound.
“There's ten ready to come out, that we have to play catch up to and each one of those may be a little bit more potent, a little more lethal,” explained Farmer.
A dose of fentanyl can be the same size as two specks of salt - confusing that for heroin or misjudging the dosage can have deadly consequences.
"The optimum euphoric effect is so close to overdosing or a lethal amount and to get an accurate dose is almost impossible,” said Farmer.
Allen said after authorities interview people brought back from the brink of overdose with naloxone, the user often claims they were using heroin. For those who don't survive, though, authorities have noticed an alarming increase in fentanyl being found in their systems during autopsies.
Because of this, Allen believes most people claiming to have been using heroin were actually using the much more potent and deadly fentanyl.
"A lot of folks in our community are getting fentanyl and having no idea that's what they're getting," Allen said. "Folks think they're buying heroin, but in fact they're getting some version of fentanyl or fentanyl analogs and that stuff is so much more powerful than the heroin that they're getting. "
Allen said she's unsure when the number of suspected opioid deaths will peak because the numbers are still on the rise.
"If we can't find a way to get a handle on it, we're not close to the peak in my opinion," Allen said.
The problem is not exclusive to one socioeconomic class and is affecting many people across Knox County. Allen said Caucasians age 30 and older, in particular, are more at risk of overdosing.
"If you look at the reports from the folks that are overdosing, it's affecting an older age group than most people would think." Allen said. "We have 30-year-olds, 40-year-olds that are overdosing. This is not a teenage problem or an early 20s problem. This is older folks."
Allen also talked Wednesday about the year-long program that launched early in March to help willing non-violent criminal defendants overcome addiction through Vivitrol injections, a brand name of the drug naltrexone that suppresses the desire for opioids.
So far, seven defendants have begun taking injections as part of the "Shot at Life" program.
Allen said more people will be added to the program in groups, saying the group dynamic "holds them accountable" for keeping up with injections. For example, a small pilot group of women will be created soon.
Allen said it will take some time to learn how well the yearlong program is working and to determine if it is having a lasting effect at suppressing addiction, but said the first participant is "doing very well."