NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — Metro Nashville leaders are trying to curb the “alarming” number of people dying from drug overdoses.

“The amount of illicit fentanyl that is on our streets, I cannot overstate this, the amount that is on the street in our city is shocking on frightening,” said MNPD Sgt. Mike Hotz, whose Neighborhood Safety Unit in the Specialized Investigations Division primarily looks at overdose deaths. He presented during the Metro Council Public Health and Safety Committee’s special-called meeting on fentanyl overdoses on Tuesday.

Sgt. Hotz said Davidson County had 336 overdose deaths in 2017, 346 in 2018, 468 in 2019, 621 in 2020, 725 in 2021, and 2022 is on track to be deadlier with 352 suspected overdose deaths so far. They said Davidson County’s upward trend of overdose deaths coincides with the presence of fentanyl in toxicology reports. Leaders feel it’s putting a strain on emergency departments and fire/EMS. According to the Metro Health Department, the suspected overdoses requiring an emergency response are averaging about 104 events per week in 2022.

“If we look at these current trends of the overdose crisis we are – and I reiterate – in the deadliest phase of the epidemic due to the illicit drug fentanyl contaminating the drug environment,” said Madelynne Myers, MPH, Metro Public Health Department High-Intensity Area Overdose Coordinator.

She explained that Tennessee is currently in the top five states nationwide for the rate of drug overdoses. Myers pointed to one challenge being a state law that says someone can’t be held liable for civil damages for rendering emergency care.

“Right now our Good Samaritan’s Law says that by law we only cover one overdose instance. However, we have great community partners who are willing to go above and beyond this,” said Myers. “I think we need to work on the stigma that is associated with substance use disorder as well as continuing on our linkage to care. I think we do a really great job on prevention education. For those who are currently in the throws of addiction, I’m not sure as a state we are best prepared to help those individuals.”

During Tuesday’s meeting, people held up pictures of loved ones who died due to this epidemic and shared stories about how overdoses impacted their lives. That included Tanja Jacobs, whose son Romello Marchman died in 2020. She says he took what he thought was a small amount of cocaine but turned out to be 99% fentanyl and died within minutes. She says her son and others are being poisoned by fentanyl. Jacobs got billboards put up with the message temporarily but wants to see them long-term across the state. She also wants schools to help educate parents about the dangers of fentanyl.

“There’s still a lot of parents and people out there that do not even know this exists and it just shocks me but I guess I shouldn’t be surprised because I wouldn’t know anything about it, I never heard of this before this happened to Romello so I have to remind myself of that as well,” Jones said.

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Former Nashville Mayor Megan Barry was sharing her story during the meeting. Her son max died from an overdose in 2017. She imagined Max’s final moments on a back deck in Denver five years ago — the lethal combination of Xanax, methadone, hydromorphone, and cocaine coursing through his system.

“Perhaps he knows something is wrong and he thinks of the one person who can help him and he calls me. And my phone is on silent that night and I missed his call that night,” Barry said.

She explained that even as mayor she was ashamed to ask for help when she knew her son was a drug addict and says changing the stigma could’ve saved his life.

“If only we had known that our shame and guilt was preventing us from a deeper understanding of what was going to happen. If only someone had told us how critical that first year anniversary was,” said Barry, adding Max died around a year after he completed rehab. “There is light. We can peel away this shame and this guilt together. The only reason Max continues to exist is because I get a chance to talk about him.”

During the meeting, leaders echoed the message of there needing to be a community approach to tackling the drug overdose epidemic. Sgt. Hotz encouraged business owners to have Narcan on hand as drug dealers are selling fentanyl-laced cocaine in the downtown corridor. He also said parents need to speak with children about fentanyl being in counterfeit prescription pills.

The Tennessee REDLINE is the 24/7/365 resource for substance abuse treatment referrals. Anyone can call or text 800-889-9789 for confidential referrals.