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2020 was the deadliest year for drug-related deaths in Knox, Anderson counties

Advocates hope a return to face-to-face recovery help will reverse that trend.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — The Knox County Regional Forensic Center released its 2020 Drug-Related Death Report for Knox and Anderson counties on Monday.

Officials said that the number of overdose deaths in Knox County increased 41% compared to a 9.8% decrease in 2019. In Anderson County, drug overdose deaths increased 82% in 2020 compared to the 11.6% drop in 2019.

Spanish Version: 2020 fue el año pico en muertes relacionadas con drogas en los condados de Knox y Anderson

"It's our worst year yet. It's just so sad," said Knox County District Attorney General Charme Allen. "They're really so much more than a number. Every one of those families is now missing a mother, a father, a brother, a sister, a loved one."

According to a report, mixed drug intoxications led the way, but fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and some of the novel synthetic opioids continue to be the most abused drugs. Among the stimulants, methamphetamine is the drug of choice either alone or in combination with opioids.

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“As we began collaborating with a number of nonprofit and governmental agencies to bring awareness to the perils of overprescribing, the numbers of overdoses started to drop,” said Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, chief medical examiner. “Our efforts were finally paying off in 2019 as the overdose deaths began to decline. Unfortunately, 2020—the year of Coronavirus pandemic—happened and the rest is history.”

Dr. Mileusnic-Plochan said that job losses, economic hardship, the lack of access to treatment modalities, among other aspects, "have led to a rise in the overall mortality from unnatural causes, including drugs."

At Metro Drug Coalition, Executive Director Karen Pershing said she's hoping a return to face-to-face recovery meetings will help reverse these trends.

"2020 was definitely a very frustrating year. Addiction is a disease that isolates," Pershing said. "They need to get out and form a community of others in recovery so we're very hopeful that those connections are now happening."

The report states that in Knox and Anderson counties, young and middle-aged men continued to be disproportionately affected by drug overdose compared to women. In Knox County, the ratio of black to white overdose deaths is 1 to 9, which reflects the community’s demographic makeup. 

“In 2020, 413 people died from drug overdose in Knox County compared to 293 in 2019 and 51 people died in Anderson County compared to 28 in 2019," said Chris Thomas, Senior Director of the Knox County Regional Forensic Center. Preliminary data for drug deaths in 2021, unfortunately, indicates an even more upward trend for drug-related death cases in Knox County.”

The data is only from drug-related deaths in Knox and Anderson counties between 2010 and 2020 that were investigated by the medical examiner.

Some highlights of the report by the Knox County Regional Forensic Center include:  

  • Fentanyl and fentanyl analogues (synthetic opioids) were the most frequently identified drugs in drug-related deaths in 2020.
  • Polypharmacy, which is when more than one drug is responsible for death, was involved in 72% of Knox County’s and 80% of Anderson County’s overdose deaths.
  • The five most common drugs identified in drug-related deaths in 2020 were synthetic opioids, methamphetamine, alcohol/ethanol, heroin and cocaine.
  • Prescription opioid-related deaths continue to decrease in the Regional Forensic Center jurisdictions.
  • People age 34 to 44 experienced the most drug deaths in Knox County, but the sharpest increase was in individuals age 55 to 64.

For the full report, click here.