Fentanyl kills Georgians at alarming rates during pandemic

Deadly synthetic opioid found in counterfeit pills and street drugs
Pills that appear like ordinary prescription medicine but contain lethal amounts of fentanyl are killing people in Georgia and across the nation. (Courtesy of Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office)

Credit: Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office

Credit: Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office

Pills that appear like ordinary prescription medicine but contain lethal amounts of fentanyl are killing people in Georgia and across the nation. (Courtesy of Gwinnett County Medical Examiner's Office)

Joe Abraham led the typical life of a suburban kid in metro Atlanta for most of his life. He played baseball, enjoyed fishing and took accelerated classes growing up.

But behind the curtain of his middle-class upbringing, the Lawrenceville teenager struggled with drug addiction throughout high school. His parents, Kathi and David, tried to help with rehab, therapy and a sober living facility.

The 19-year-old lost his battle on May 26, 2017, when he overdosed on a mixture of heroin and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine. Dustin Manning, an 18-year-old childhood friend of Abraham, died on the same day from fentanyl only half a mile away.

Years later, the opioid epidemic has only worsened in the state and nationwide. Lives claimed by fentanyl and other drugs climbed to alarming rates during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The number of fentanyl-involved deaths in Georgia more than doubled from 2019 to 2020, according to data from the state’s public health department. The synthetic opioid played a part in killing 803 Georgians in 2020, compared to 392 in 2019.

In each of the core metro Atlanta counties — Cobb, DeKalb, Fulton and Gwinnett — the number of deaths nearly doubled or tripled.

Joe Abraham, a 19-year-old from Lawrenceville who formerly attended Mountain View High School, died from a fatal overdose from a mixture of heroin and fentanyl in 2017. (Courtesy of Kathi Abraham)

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‘This is in your backyard’

Carol Terry, medical examiner for Gwinnett County, became concerned about the drug’s deadly presence toward the end of 2014. Now, the county is in the midst of a fentanyl “epidemic,” she said.

Fentanyl played a role in 60% of all drug-related deaths in the county in 2020, according to medical examiner’s office records obtained by the AJC. Seventy people died from fentanyl-related overdoses in 2020, compared to 26 in 2019.

The drug played a role in killing at least 33 people in the county from January to April of this year. Most people who died had a combination of fentanyl and other drugs in their system.

In Fulton County, 83 people died from fentanyl-related overdoses in 2020, compared to 48 in 2019, according to data from Georgia’s Department of Public Health.

The number of fentanyl-related deaths rose in Cobb County from 36 in 2019 to 80 in 2020. In DeKalb County, 57 people died in 2020, compared to 34 in 2019.

By the time of publication, medical examiners for Cobb, DeKalb and Fulton counties had not provided the number of fentanyl-related deaths so far in 2021.

It’s a misconception that opioid use is limited to urban areas, said Robert Murphy, a special agent with the Atlanta division of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency. Affluent, suburban areas around Atlanta are hotspots for the drug, he said, as people in these areas can more readily afford it.

Counterfeit pills peddled by drug dealers can be deadly. They may look like Xanax or Percocet but could contain fatal amounts of fentanyl. They’ve been found in Atlanta, Augusta, Columbus and Savannah, as well as small rural counties.

Clara Butler, a 17-year-old from Lawrenceville, died in April after taking what she thought was Percocet but turned out to be pure fentanyl.

Street drugs — cocaine, heroin, meth and even marijuana — can also be laced with fentanyl.

Carol Terry, medical examiner for Gwinnett County, sits in her Lawrenceville office and flips through the pages of deaths caused by fentanyl and other synthetic opioids in 2020 and 2021. (Tyler Wilkins / tyler.wilkins@ajc.com)

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“For us, it’s bigger than COVID,” Terry said. “... This is in your backyard. Whereas before they thought these things were just an inner city problem, oh no. It’s here in the suburbs.”

Fentanyl kills people of all ages, from 17 years old to 70, said Muscogee County Coroner Buddy Bryan. It caused the death of five people in 2020 and two people in 2019, said Malika Hampton, administrative assistant for the coroner.

From January to April of this year alone, the synthetic opioid killed at least six people in the Columbus area, Hampton said.

Parker Mosshart, an engineering student at Kennesaw State University from Dacula, struggled with substance abuse for years. It started with marijuana, later escalating to heavier drugs.

Mosshart, 19, died in 2015 after taking a Xanax pill laced with fentanyl. Days before he overdosed, Mosshart told his mother, Ginger Kester, he wanted to seek help.

Kester, in a Wednesday interview, said her son wanted to experience a high one last time, comparing it to someone eating their final brownie before starting a diet. His dorm room contained no alcohol, drugs or paraphernalia when police found his body.

“It was minuscule the amount of fentanyl that was in that pill,” said Kester, sitting at her desk with photos of her son. “... It’s been six years, and sometimes it still feels like it was yesterday.”

Parker Mosshart, 19, lost his life in 2015 to a Xanax pill laced with fentanyl. (Courtesy of Ginger Kester)

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‘It can happen to anybody’

Much of the fentanyl found in the U.S., and the ingredients used to make it, come from Mexico and China, Murphy said.

It’s cheaper to make street drugs by cutting them with fentanyl, Murphy said. Selling fentanyl to unsuspecting buyers allows drug dealers to increase profits while attracting repeat customers, he said, if their first dose isn’t lethal.

The sharpened tips of one or two lead pencils roughly equates to a deadly dose of fentanyl, Murphy said.

Little quality control goes into the making of street-style fentanyl, Murphy said, crafted in “clandestine jungle labs” like bathtubs by people who care more for profit than human life.

The DEA tries to nab high-profile drug traffickers before fentanyl hits the streets, Murphy said. With every pill that slips through the cracks, more lives are lost, he said.

Georgia’s Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities has a two-year, $39 million federal grant ending in September to combat the opioid epidemic. Some funds are used to deliver naloxone to first responders and teach them how to use it, said Brian Le, who oversees the prevention side of the grant.

Naloxone, commonly known by the brand name Narcan, works by reversing the side effects of an overdose until a victim can receive further treatment. It’s used as a nasal spray, similar to allergy medicines.

The pandemic not only took a toll on people physically but mentally. Some people turned to self-medicating to cope, which may explain some of the rise in opioid overdoses, Le said.

Others, some of them teenagers, wanted to try a drug that turned out to be something else altogether.

“I try to educate folks that it can happen to anybody,” Kathi Abraham said. “... Kids are out partying, think they need something to take the edge off or something to keep them awake for studies. (Fentanyl) can be in anything right now.”

How to get help

In an immediate emergency, call 911. If you or a loved one struggles with substance abuse, you can call the Georgia Crisis and Access Line at 1-800-715-4225.

Naloxone can be purchased over-the-counter in Georgia without a prescription. Laws exist that protect people from prosecution who call seeking help in the event of an overdose.

There are several symptoms of fentanyl overdose, including nausea, vomiting, cold and clammy skin, blue-colored lips and fingernails, slowed or stopped breathing and decreased heart rate.