Knox sees record number of fatal drug overdoses

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This year is far from over, but the number of people believed to have died in Knox County from drug overdoses in 2021 has now surpassed the previous annual record, authorities said.

As of Wednesday, the number of fatal overdoses stood at 385, according to data provided by the Knox County Forensic Center and the District Attorney General’s Office.

At the same time, Knoxville was poised to break its all-time annual record for homicides, with at least 36 people having been slain on Knoxville’s streets thus far in 2021, police said. The vast majority of them have been killed with firearms.

“The overdose epidemic has taken a tremendous toll on cities across the country, and the Knoxville community has certainly not been immune to that,” said Knoxville Police Department spokesperson Scott Erland. 

“Additionally, like cities across the country, Knoxville has also experienced an increase in shootings and violent crime over the past 20 months,” he continued. “The factors that contribute to these two trends are multi-faceted, and it will require the collective, unified efforts of city and community leaders, law enforcement and service providers to make a difference.”

The previous highs in both categories came in 2020, meaning that there have been record numbers of deaths from both overdoses and homicides for two consecutive years.

Authorities say 383 people fatally overdosed and 37 were slain in 2020.

The vast majority of overdoses have been caused by the illicit opiate painkillers heroin and fentanyl, which replaced legal opiates like morphine and oxycodone on the black market when the government cracked down on how often they could be prescribed. 

While the current opiate epidemic has raged for almost a full generation, local officials involved in treating addicts believe that significant progress was being made until the COVID-19 pandemic hit in early 2020.

“We’re still trying to dig our way out from under the pandemic,” said Karen Pershing, executive director for the Metro Drug Coalition. “That’s speculation, but addiction is a disease of isolation and that’s what we had to do — isolate ourselves.”

According to Pershing, the number of overdose deaths had been dropping through the first three months of 2020, and there’s every reason to believe they would have continued to fall had the pandemic not happened. 

“I tell people that the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s community,” Pershing said. “When you lose those connections to other people, to your community, it’s very difficult to maintain your recovery.”

During the early stages of recovery, it’s important that addicts build an “accountability network” through sober friends, recovery programs and employment, she explained.

“People in early recovery tend to get jobs in the service industry, which were hit very hard in the pandemic,” Pershing continued. 

Even when employers didn’t completely shut down, there was still a reduction in how many people were needed to work when, say, a restaurant’s dining room closed and its customers began using curb service.

“When there’s no accountability and people stay at home alone, it’s just a recipe to start using again,” she said.

Pershing stressed that addiction is an illness that can be controlled with the proper treatment and support. 

“This is a chronic disease,” she said. “Once they have it, they have it for life. But they can treat it. They will have relapses, and when they do they need to get into treatment so they can get stable again. We have to understand that, meet people where they are, and get them the services they need at the time they need them.”

The focus of law enforcement, in the meantime, remains taking illegal drugs and firearms off the streets, police officials said. 

“KPD officers are deeply committed to the safety and well-being of the Knoxville community,” said department spokesperson Erland. “It is a priority of the department to take deadly and addictive narcotics off the street as well as firearms from those who wish to do harm.”

Erland cited statistics from October showing that KPD officers seized at least 35 illegal firearms, more than 230 grams of heroin, 165 grams of methamphetamine and 115 grams of cocaine. 

“It is also worth pointing out that total reports of shots fired and shootings with injury are down this year compared to the same time last year,” Erland said. 

As of October 31 of this year, there have been 351 reports of shots fired in Knoxville and 82 reports of people being shot, he said. At the same time last year, there were 396 reports of shots fired and 98 reported shootings with injury.

“The collective efforts of KPD officers in concert with our state and federal law enforcement partners are a direct attempt to prevent overdose deaths and violent crime and disrupt the distribution of the deadly narcotics. Those efforts will not cease,” he said.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at jjstambaugh@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on November 4, 2021.