The opioid epidemic shows no signs of slowing in 2018 as distressing statistics point to an ever-deepening problem, but hope is blooming as more and more communities take an active stance to end the crisis.
According to the Police Executive Research Forum's 2017 report, opioid overdose deaths are 'unprecedented' and are now one of the leading causes of death across the nation.
The report cited more than 64,000 drug overdose deaths in 2016 -- and law enforcement agencies in many cities across the country noted that more people died to overdose than highway accidents. To put it into perspective, the 2016 numbers even surpassed the 50,628 who died at the worst peak of the HIV/AIDs epidemic in 1995.
Here at home in East Tennessee, the epidemic is suspected to have hit harder than ever in 2017 after suspected drug-related overdose deaths in Knox County alone peaked in December to 294, surpassing 2016's total 224 OD deaths according to the Knox County District Attorney General's Office.
More bad news in the fight against the epidemic is that Knox County has surpassed suspected overdose deaths for January and February 2018 compared to this time last year. In 2017, 47 people were suspected to have died to overdose between these two months, while in 2018 -- 58 people have reportedly died so far.
As the crisis deepens, the call has been made for law enforcement and health agencies to step up their efforts to curb overdose deaths on the front line. This means equipping first responders with tools like the life-saving drug naloxone to save people in critical distress when they suspect a drug overdose.
In places like Sevier County, the effort to curb these deaths and equip officers has received support from the community.
Sevier County Sheriff Ronald L. Seals said the number of calls regarding potential overdoses has increased overall for law enforcement and medical workers, but thanks to organizations like the Sevier County Coalition for Addiction Recovery and Education Services, or "CARES," deputies have been armed with naloxone.
The naloxone nasal spray Narcan was made available through a state grant program through the Tennessee Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services and was distributed through Sevier County CARES.
According to the sheriff, within the first 24 hours after officers received training to use the drug, deputies were able to revive a person who was in critical distress following a suspected overdose.
“We are extremely fortunate to have this partnership with Sevier County C.A.R.E.S. This opportunity has already proven to be directly responsible for saving lives, "Sheriff Seals said. "The numbers recently released regarding overdose deaths are sickening and my hope is that together, as a community, we continue to be proactive and make positive changes.”
John Matthews, the chairman of Sevier County CARES, said they are thankful for the partnership and proactive approach by officers to work toward preventing OD deaths.
"All of us at Sevier County C.A.R.E.S are honored knowing that we helped save someone’s life. We know our effort has just begun as we work toward ending this drug overdose epidemic."