More hospitalized in Middle Georgia with suspected overdoses

At least three more people have been admitted to Middle Georgia hospitals because of possible overdoses linked to a wave of potent synthetic opioids being sold on the street and marked as Percocet, health officials said Friday.

The new cases bring to 33 the number of people affected in Middle and South Georgia since last weekend. Another four died — two in Bibb County and one each in Monroe and Houston Counties.

According to the Georgia Department of Health, at least one of the three new cases was in Bibb County but the spokeswoman would not identify the “adjacent counties” where the other two cases were reported.

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“There are laws about releasing protected health information and we are not going to release the counties in these two cases,” spokeswoman Nancy Nydam said in an email.

The 33 overdoses include cases in Bibb, Monroe, Houston and Dougherty counties. Officials said nine people remain in the hospital.

“We’ve never seen this number of overdoses in such a short time like this,” Chris Hendry, chief medical officer at Navicent Medical in Macon said earlier in the week.

Officials are blaming a yellow, oval pill that preliminary tests say contains two synthetic opioids, including a version of fentanyl. It is stamped with PERCOCET.

When officials announced the cluster of apparent overdoses on Monday, health officials predicted there would be more. They were right. On Monday, 24 people had been hospitalized and the next day that climbed to 30. It now stands at 33.

A rising tide of opioid addiction has been feeding an escalating public health crisis nationally and in Georgia. As dealers have become more sophisticated, officials are also seeing synthetic opioids, with varying chemical compositions.

The pill linked to the middle Georgia cluster is unlike any law enforcement has seen and officials are waiting on scientists at the Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s crime lab to completely analyze a sample seized in the Macon area to determine precisely what’s in them.

On Thursday, the GBI's crime lab had completed the first stage of analysis and found the pills to be a "chemical cousin" of fentanyl. But GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said more testing was needed to determine the specific makeup of the drugs.

Nationwide, law enforcement has faced challenges for years trying to keep up as drugs evolve, Illicit drug-makers try to get around the law by just changing one component in a drug so that it no longer meets the definition that makes it illegal.

But a new law took effect in Georgia in April gives law enforcement more latitude to bring drug charges even when the components have been tweaked slightly. Under federal law, the definitions of what makes a drug illegal is strict and difficult to change. But the new Georgia law says fentanyl, as well as some of the new drugs on the streets, remain illegal even when the components are altered.