MONROE COUNTY, Tenn. — Local experts said drug overdoses aren't uncommon in Monroe County, and the community is working to control the overdose epidemic that continues to grip much of Tennessee.
Last week, a vape pen reportedly laced with fentanyl brought in by a student led to a panic at Sequoyah High School when two SROs and a school nurse came in close contact to it. It is still unclear if the substance inside the vape pen was actually fentanyl, but Monroe County authorities said the substance inside the pen popped positive for the drug on a field test.
Fentanyl is a strong synthetic prescription opioid that's used to treat patients experiencing the highest levels of pain. It's given in small, controlled time-released doses to ensure patients receive it safely.
However, the DEA and other law enforcement agencies in the past decade have been raising an alarm to the substance leading to a large spike in overdoses, saying it is being sold illegally as a powder as well as being mixed with other opioids such as heroin as a cheaper-to-produce option. The DEA is now urging Congress to permanently upgrade fentanyl and related substances to a Schedule I drug to carry a mandatory minimum sentencing.
Overdose prevention organizations said fentanyl and its analogs continue to contribute to a much higher number of overdoses in the county. The National Institute on Drug Abuse said 59% of all opioid-related deaths in the country in 2017 involved fentanyl.
The Tennessee Department of Health said that in 2020, more than 2,000 people statewide died of an overdose related to fentanyl, and the Metro Drug Coalition said that it has been present in East Tennessee for a while.
According to Gabbie McConkey, project director of the Monroe County Prevention and Wellness Coalition, there were 14 overdoses in the county in 2020. In 2021, she said the number has grown to an estimated 19 overdoses and one suspected overdose death.
"It raises an alarm," McConkey said.
She said the rise in overdoses isn't happening only in Monroe County.
"It's not just Monroe County, it's everywhere," McConkey said.
After last week's incident at Sequoyah High School brought to light several incidents of overdoses reported at the school -- mostly to Delta-8 THC substances, according to deputies who seized drugs from students. Monroe County deputies said they have been working to curb drug use in schools.
"I don't think some of these kids understand the severity of what something like fentanyl can do. They don't understand that a small amount can kill them," McConkey said.
Marissa Valentine is the regional overdose prevention specialist for region 2S, covering 7 different counties. This includes Monroe, Loudon, Blount, Sevier, Jefferson, Cocke and Hamblen counties.
"We provide education and resources and tools. All of this to help prevent an overdose before it even happens," Valentine said.
She also provides free overdose training with the overdose-reversing substance naloxone, and led one such event Monday afternoon.
"It's absolutely vital. You never know when you're going to have to use it," Valentine said.
Valentine said across the seven counties she covers, drug overdoses have increased over the last three years.
"In 2020, we have actually had 200 fatal overdoses," Valentine said.
She said this is a 45% increase from 2019. For this year, she expects the number to jump even higher.
"It's disheartening honestly," Valentine said. "I hate to see the numbers go up."
Valentine said she works alongside McConkey to make sure people understand the severity of overdoses and how to treat them.
"Prevention is key and education is key," McConkey said. "This is a community problem and needs to be solved with the community as a whole."
The Monroe County Prevention and Wellness Coalition hosts two virtual naloxone trainings monthly. It also provided in-person training in recent years.