Prescription overdose deaths are falling in Tennessee but fight far from over

Tennessee's Overdose Crisis

Tennessee's Overdose Crisis

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) – Tennessee’s overdose crisis is taking another hit with the COVID-19 pandemic with drug overdose deaths on the rise in recent months. Still, a report from the Tennessee Department of Health showed prescription overdoses are declining.

Experts credit getting pills off the streets using drop boxes and limiting how many pills people are initially prescribed.

“Can’t necessarily access it as much by way of diversion. That’s decreased because people aren’t getting as much with their first prescription from the TN to Go Legislation from about two years ago,” said Anthony Jackson, Jr., Director of Prevention and Early Intervention Services in the Division of Substance Abuse Services.

The department gave out 158,000 units of naloxone since October 2017, a life-saving medicine that quickly reverses an opioid overdose.

“By way of this program alone we’ve had more than 16,000 saves, recorded saves, since October 2017,” said Jackson.

He added that education is also a big factor. In 2018, more Tennesseans died from the illicit drug fentanyl than prescription opioids.

“We’re seeing where many of the people who are being revived with naloxone that we’ve distributed they may not realize that they’re taking an opioid. They think oh I’m taking methamphetamine, naloxone doesn’t work on methamphetamine and they’re right, it doesn’t, but naloxone works on methamphetamine laced with fentanyl,” said Jackson.

Will Taylor is a Lifeline Coordinator and Overdose Prevention Specialist working to save lives in Middle Tennessee.

“Being an individual in long term recovery with opioids my drug of choice, there wasn’t anything that was going to stop me from getting my high when I was in active addiction,” said Taylor.

“When I first was introduced to recovery it wasn’t by choice. I had a lot of judicial intervention. It was kind of the option of staying a stint in jail or I was actually given the option to go into treatment.”

More Tennesseeans are not making it to treatment. The same report from the health department showed non-prescription opioid overdose cases on the rise in Tennessee.

The overdose epidemic is now laced with the COVID-19 pandemic. Jackson said there has been an increase in overdoses in urban and rural Tennessee communities in recent months.

“The past two months, yeah it’s been hard. With COVID-19 you can imagine when you think about prevention service when you think about treatment and prevention service that’s an in-person thing, it’s not necessarily something you do or you’re always set up to do long distance or not face to face,” said Jackson.

Officials are switching to telehealth services, using naloxone drop-offs, and Zoom training – whatever they can to provide that crucial support.

 “First we have to love individuals where they’re at. By that we’re able to chip away at some of the barriers they may be having, then they start to become, they start to open up,” said Taylor.  

Anyone needing help with substance abuse treatment can call or text the Tennessee Redline at 1-800-889-9789.

Tennessee’s overdose crisis is evolving in the wake of the COVID-19 Pandemic. First responders and emergency rooms are reporting an increase in overdose cases. News 2 examines the disturbing trend in a special investigation. Read the latest reports here.        

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