A new type of fentanyl sold as a pain reliever called Percocet caused an unusual opioid overdose outbreak in Georgia in June. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that has the potential to be 50 times stronger than heroin. The victims bought the yellow pills from a Macon street dealer, who ultimately caused 40 overdose cases and six of them resulted in deaths.

All of the overdose victims bought the pills from the same drug house, and five of them were from the same household in Macon. Local police officers hadn’t seen anything like those deadly pills before, and it was the first time health workers had to deal with such a high number of overdoses in a short period.

Patients who suffered from high levels of pain apparently ran out of their Percocet pills and went to the streets to find more. Percocet is just a combination of oxycodone and acetaminophen, but the victims didn’t know the dealer would be selling a lethal drug capable of causing so much trouble.

Image credit: Joe Amon / Getty Images / The Huffington Post
Image credit: Joe Amon / Getty Images / The Huffington Post

ER doctor sounds the alarm

The Georgia Poison Center received the alert from an emergency room doctor who witnessed three overdose cases related to the deadly yellow pills. Health officials, law enforcement, doctors, and nurses worked together over two weeks to stop the epidemic and save as many lives as possible.

The first patient was a woman who arrived on an ambulance at Navicent Health Medical Center in Macon on June 4. She was barely conscious, and her body didn’t respond to Narcan, which led Dr. Gregory Whatley to work a tube down her throat in an attempt to open up the gasping woman’s airway.

Dr. Whatley also administered fluids and sedatives. Four hours later, the patient tried to rip the breathing tube out of her throat. After she calmed down, she was asked what had happened and what she had taken. The woman said she had received a Percocet pill, but the doctor knew just one Percocet pill had not caused such a reaction.

opioid overdose outbreak
Image credit: Thinkstock / Healthitanalytics.com

He decided to admit her due to her high blood-cell count and rare lab values. Also during Dr. Whatley’s 10 p.m.-to-6 a.m. shift, another woman was brought in with the same symptoms. The second overdose patient, who was treated by the other ER doctor, also said she had taken a yellow pill of Percocet. But Dr. Whatley was so busy with his patients that he didn’t have time to do the math.

When Whatley returned for his next shift on June 5, he heard about a third overdose patient who told the paramedics he had taken a Percocet. He realized the three strange cases might have been related and alerted the Georgia Poison Center, which conducted toxicology tests and found that the pills were a new, lethal type of fentanyl.

The caseload jumped to five, and a proactive nurse at Houston Medical Center in Warner Robins later reported nine cases. The director Gaylord Lopez, director of the Georgia Poison Center, told NBC News that his office alerted several agencies including the Georgia Bureau of Investigation, the federal Drug Enforcement Administration, and a heroin response team from Atlanta.

Overprescription is terrible, street drugs too

Overprescription back surgeries result in more than 3 billion extra pills that become available for abuse, but efforts to prevent this problem may increase the rates of street drug purchases in the case of patients who experience high levels of pain.

The first fatal victim was Gregory Mitchell, a 51-year-old man who had been admitted at Navicent on June 5 and health officials determined he had not been a drug abuser. His sister, Betty Jean Collins and brother in law Henry Howard, were also taken to the hospital for an overdose. Both of them survived.

Image credit: NCADD.org
Image credit: NCADD.org

Howard, who suffers from back pain, told The Telegraph that he had purchased 10 of what he thought were Percocet pills for $7 apiece. He explained that he had turned into the street because he had run out of his medication.

Lopez said at least one case was reported every day from June 5 to June 19.

The identity of the street dealer who sold the deadly pills and made people believe they were Percocet remains unclear. However, law enforcement officials found that the tablets were originated in Atlanta, according to a report by NBC News.

Lt. Mike Kenirey said first responders saved an indefinite amount of lives and gave credit to Navicent doctors and David Davis, the county sheriff, who offered a news conference to let the public know about the danger the yellow pills out there represented.

Nevertheless, a man who had just gotten out of jail didn’t hear the news. He had a history of purchasing street drugs and bought the yellow pills thinking they were Percocet. He was admitted to the Houston Medical Center with an overdose. Luckily, he is among the survivors.

“When dangerous illicit drugs reach this wide level of market penetration, the regional effects of potentially fatal substitutes can be swift,” said Brian Levin, a criminal justice professor at California State University-San Bernardino, as quoted by NBC News.

Drug overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50, as Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein told NBC News during the days of the yellow pills investigation.

Source: NBC News