KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — So far in 2021, 385 people in Knox County have died from drug overdoses, according to data from the Knox County District Attorney General’s website.

Staff at the Knox County Regional Forensics Center said they’re not even close to identifying all the deaths that could be related to overdoses.

“We have absolutely surpassed the number of cases investigated, deaths reported, autopsies and drug related deaths from 2020 to 2021,” said Chris Thomas, chief administrative officer at the Knox County Regional Forensic Center. “I do stress that all these numbers are preliminary as we are behind on certifying cases due to the increased case load so that number will change.”

District Attorney General Charme Allen said the county was making great strides before the pandemic hit.

She was hoping, with the pandemic easing up, fewer people would be dying from overdoses, but that hasn’t been the case.

“We are still suffering from the effects from last year’s pandemic and our numbers continue to rise,” Allen said.

She said it’s more than numbers. It’s people and families who were destroyed by drugs.

“That’s 385 families that are impacted,” Allen said.

Allen said COVID-19 is partly to blame, but the potency of the drugs is another factor.

“Fentanyl is found cut to some degree in almost every drug we have on the streets in Knox County now. So fentanyl is very, very prevalent and it’s very dangerous and deadly,” Allen said.

Thomas said fentanyl and fentanyl analogs are the main drugs found in the people who overdose. He said methamphetamine is second. He said that’s the same ranking as last year, just amplified because they are investigating more cases.

It’s the role of Allen and her office to get the drugs off the streets to help fix the problem.

“I have four full-time prosecutors that do nothing but prosecute drug cases. And so we try to do that in an effective manner to where we really can try to get the dealers off the street,” Allen said.

She said those prosecutors are determining whether if someone is a dealer or if they are a victim of addiction and need treatment.

Allen said her office is only part of the solution. Drug addiction is a community problem, and that’s where organizations such as Metro Drug Coalition of Knoxville comes in.

“Our phone calls have picked up quite a bit in the last couple of years, just due to the fact that so many people during the pandemic, even in longer term recovery, relapsed during this time,” Karen Pershing, executive director of MDC, said.

Pershing said part of addiction is community. People need connections, and when COVID-19 hit, those connections were taken away or went virtual.

At MDC, they try to prevent addiction in the first place. They also help people get into recovery. This past year, they helped about 400 addicts start their recovery journey.

“We have someone, a full-time position, all they do is help people get into treatment. Especially those who are uninsured,” Pershing said.

MDC also helps people after treatment. Pershing said that’s when their true journey to recovery starts.

“It can take sometimes 18 to 24 months of sobriety before their brain really functions well,” she said. “So, we’re trying to fill that gap by offering recovery coaching, so that we can continue to support people until they get to a place where they’re stable on their own.”

Pershing said MDC tries to prevent active addicts from overdosing as well. They offer classes on Narcan, and pass out kits to the community.

She said last year, they passed out 16,000 kits of Naloxone. Although it’s a great tool to help someone overdosing, Pershing said it’s not a one-stop-shop to truly make them safe.

A call to 911 needs to be made, so that person receives medical treatment.

“A lot of times, because they’re alert, they think, ‘Oh, I’m OK.’ They’re really not. So, that touch point at the hospital could be extremely important for them,” Pershing said.

Pershing, like Allen, said addiction is a community problem that everyone can help with, because most families are dealing with it in one way or another.

Pershing said people can easily eliminate the stigma, so those struggling with active addiction feel more comfortable asking for help.

“If you are even considering recovery and going into treatment, do it now,” she said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, you can call the Metro Drug Coalition at 865-588-5550.

Some other notes about overdose-related deaths in Knox County from the RFC:

  • Thirty-four percent of the bodies sent to the RFC so far in 2021 are being looked at for drug-related causes. Twenty-nine percent of the bodies looked at in 2020 were drug-related deaths.
  • Thomas said many of the drug-related cases they investigate have just recently been released from jail, have recently celebrated a recovery anniversary or recently left a substance abuse facility early.
  • There’s an increase of people dying from overdoses that are 55 years or older.
  • Allen said the majority of those dying from drugs are between the ages of 35 and 45.

Pershing said these numbers don’t include people who die from drug-related caused other than overdoses, such as car crashes or diseases contracted from using drugs.