KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — The Knox County District Attorney General's Office said that in 2022, 505 suspected overdose deaths were reported by the Knox County Forensic Center — setting a new record.
The office said that data is initially received before a death is determined an overdose, and once a determination is made by the medical examiner, the data is updated. As a result, they said the data can fluctuate over time. Recently, the 2022 numbers crossed over 500 deaths.
On a single day in September 2022, seven people were suspected of dying due to an overdose. Suspect drug overdose deaths in Knox County surpassed 400 for the first time in 2021.
So far this year, 158 suspected overdose deaths were reported to the office. They said that at the same point in 2022, 150 deaths were reported.
Karen Pershing, the Executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition (MDC) said it can be difficult for her to see those numbers, given how hard her team is working.
"We see it continue to go up, it's it can be discouraging, especially if you work in it all day, every day," Pershing said.
In September 2022, MDC opened The Gateway off-Broadway. The goal of the center is to serve as a recovery sanctuary in the middle of the city. It hasn't been open for a year, but Pershing said they've already seen successes.
"We've served over 200 individuals in that coaching model, and the ones that opt into coaching, we're seeing their employment, improve their housing situation, their relationships," Pershing said.
In addition, people who come into The Gateway can access group Narcotics Anonymous sessions. For people who do want to enter into serious recovery, MDC connects them with a place to do so. In addition, they also offer art and music therapies.
"We know the beauty of the arts and how the arts can help unwind trauma. Many people with substance use disorders experienced childhood trauma, they may not realize the reason they started using drugs was really to mask feelings of insecurity, anxiety, because of what they experienced early on in life," Pershing said.
She hopes as The Gateway continues to grow, the number of people dying by overdose will decrease. She said 505 in one year is too many — one life is too many.
"Each number is a life that we have lost to this epidemic. And so it's not just a number, but it's our neighbors, it's people's loved ones. And so all of those numbers affect more than just that 505," she said.
However, Pershing said for every life lost in 2022, hundreds of lives were saved by naloxone, a life-saving medication. In 2022, the MDC distributed 16,004 Narcan kits to people, upon request. Firefighters administered Narcan 585 times. AMR administered Narcan 1,786 times.
In 2023, MDC is seeing a new problem arise. As fentanyl has become more potent in street drugs, one dose of Narcan is no longer doing the job. Naloxone only provides 4 mg of the medication. Sometimes it takes two, three or even four doses of Narcan to open someone's airway.
As of a few months ago, Pershing said MDC started to hand out a stronger type of Naloxone called Kluxxado. It contains eight mg of the medication.
"We're distributing Kluxxado to some of the highest-risk users in our community. Because we know the four mg doses of naloxone are probably not going to be effective," she said.
Pershing said people can't go through recovery if they're dead.
"If we can just get people in the door and get just get people to see others who have been where they were, and are now in long-term recovery. They can see, you can do it too," Pershing said. "Recovery is happening every day in our community. And people need to understand that they can find it too. If they're just willing to open the door."