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Overdoses down, drug-related deaths up in Hall

Credit given to awareness push; Xanax remains top threat

POSTED: July 27, 2014 12:21 a.m.

Though overdoses are down, Hall County has experienced a comparatively higher number of drug-related deaths through July on the heels of varying substance-abuse initiatives.

Through half of 2014, only one overdose death has been recorded in Hall County compared to six from 2013, according to District 2 Public Health.

Drug-related deaths, however, have reached a total of 16 through July, when there were 23 in the year before.

In analyzing the numbers, District 2 Public Health public information officer Dave Palmer pointed to several initiatives of late that may link to the decrease in overdoses.

“I definitely think that the Drug Free Coalition and the education campaign that they have been conducting over the past few years is helpful to raise awareness, especially about prescription drug abuse and other drugs,” he said. “I think anytime we raise the awareness in the community about a problem like substance abuse, I think that’s a positive impact in the community.”

J.P. Banks, head of Hall County’s Drug Free Coalition, told The Times in 2013 that accidental prescription drug overdoses caused 76 deaths in Hall County between 2010 and 2012.

Along with the awareness campaigns, drug take-back programs have been paramount in getting excess drugs out of the system, Palmer said. Approximately 30 pounds of medications are received monthly through the drop boxes in Hall County, with “take-back” days reaching more than 160 pounds of unneeded drugs, according to the coalition.

Despite the expansion of the narcotic antidote naloxone with HB 965’s signing this spring, the medication is ineffective against Georgia’s biggest overdose cause: Xanax.

While medical professionals like P. Tennent Slack of Northeast Georgia Physicians Group herald the expansion of the antidote, the main problem remains the overconsumption of the widely popular anxiety medication.

“In Georgia, the No. 1 drug associated with overdose death is not a narcotic,” he said. “It’s Xanax, alprazolam, which is a benzodiazepine. And naloxone does nothing to reverse the effects of a benzodiazepine overdose.”

For the past four years, Xanax has led the list in terms of overdose deaths in Georgia toxicology tests. In 2012, Xanax was found in the toxicology report 222 times out of the 686 overdose deaths that year, according to the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.

Ranking nos. 2, 3 and 4 were narcotic pain relievers oxycodone, methadone and hydrocodone.

Slack said increasing the availability of naloxone allows Georgians to possibly prevent significant injury.

“It can reverse the effects of the narcotic to the point that respirations will be sufficient for the patient to probably not incur brain damage and make it to the emergency room for further treatment,” he said.

By occupying the opioid receptor, naloxone prevents the drug from activating that receptor, causing a reversal of all effects. Advocates for the Good Samaritan Law additionally pushed for a greater accessibility to the drug.

“I think it’s another reform that has been put into place in Georgia that has us on the right track in terms of reducing these unintentional prescription opioid deaths,” Slack said.

Neither the Hall County Sheriff’s Office nor the Gainesville Police carry naloxone. Due to the quick response rate of Northeast Georgia Medical Center medical units, the sheriff’s office has not discussed the possibility of training officers to carry and administer the drug, spokeswoman Nicole Bailes said.

“We are all trained as being a first responder to a scene that administers some sort of minimal help as best we can, like first aid, CPR and all of that on that level,” Gainesville Police spokesman Cpl. Joe Britte said. “Anything drug-related as far as administering any drugs, you would call a med unit on that and would transport to Northeast Georgia Medical Center.”


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