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Fatal fentanyl overdoses a growing epidemic, says Coast coroner

In 2018, Harrison County only saw a handful of deaths related to the illicit drug. Fast forward three years and that number has drastically increased.
In 2018, Harrison County only saw a handful of deaths related to fentanyl. Fast forward three...
In 2018, Harrison County only saw a handful of deaths related to fentanyl. Fast forward three years and that number has tripled.(14 News)
Published: Nov. 16, 2021 at 11:09 AM CST
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HARRISON COUNTY, Miss. (WLOX) - Over the last several years, the number of drug overdoses have continued to rise and, with it, the use of the deadly drug fentanyl.

According to Harrison County Coroner Brian Switzer, fentanyl-induced deaths are increasing in the county, becoming what he calls an epidemic.

In 2018, Harrison County only saw a handful of deaths related to the illicit drug. Fast forward three years and that number has drastically increased.

2018: 32 drug deaths, 4, of those included fentanyl

2019: 40 drug deaths, 8 of those included fentanyl

2020: 57 drug deaths, 22 of those included fentanyl

2021: 67 drug deaths, 48 of those included fentanyl

With the year not completely over, the coroner said that number is expected to increase even more.

“Those are just fatal overdoses. (It) doesn’t include nonfatal,” said Switzer. “This year, we’ve seen more (deaths from) just fentanyl. It’s coming from both pressed pills - ones that look like Xanax and Oxycodone - but in actuality it’s 100% fentanyl. I’d definitely call it an epidemic.”

Two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal depending on a person’s body size, tolerance and past usage.

In September, and for the first time in six years, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a Public Safety Alert warning Americans of an increase in the lethality and availability of fake prescription pills containing fentanyl.

Harrison County saw a huge uptick during the opioid epidemic in 2018. He says the uptick is mostly affecting people between the ages of 24-45.

Switzer said he has spoken to a few DEA agents who have told him the drug is coming from Asia and is often transported through a port in New Orleans.

“You can’t get prescribed fentanyl. You can only get it in the hospital,” he said. “So, when it comes over here in its purest form, you don’t know what you’re getting. These people aren’t chemists. They’re just mixing something together so they can sell it.”

Because of its potency and low cost, drug dealers have been mixing fentanyl with other drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, drastically increasing the likelihood of a fatal interaction.

Last month, Gulfport authorities confiscated several counterfeit pills containing fentanyl, meth, marijuana, drug money, illegal guns, and more in a drug sting.

Some dealers are selling what they call “loaded syringes,” which are syringes filled with the drug and ready to be injected.

“You’re playing a game of roulette. You never know what you’re going to do,” said Switzer. “The next thing you snort, shoot up, take, it could be your last.”

During his years in the coroner’s office, Switzer has seen numerous cases involving illegal drugs. As the number of deaths involving fentanyl has risen in recent years, it’s become an issue that the coroner said needs to be talked about more.

“Put it out in the media. It’s out there. You’re buying pills that people are making at home. It doesn’t take anything to get a pill press,” he said. “We as professionals have gotten to where we see a pill and it’s got the markings on it of a Xanax. I can clearly look at it and tell that it’s not right, but these folks that are buying it. Don’t.”

Much like was done with meth in the early 2000s, law enforcement agencies are working to develop a task force on the Gulf Coast to track fentanyl and the dealers supplying it. The task force will be working in conjunction with the DEA and the U.S. District Attorney’s Office, as well as local law enforcement agencies and prosecutors.

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