SAVANNAH, Ga. (WSAV) – The number of people who have died from drug overdoses in Chatham County so far this year is higher than last year’s total.
That’s according to Michael Sarhatt, the director of the Chatham-Savannah Counter Narcotics Team (CNT). Since the start of 2021, there have been 604 suspected overdoses and 33 people have died, according to Sarhatt.
In all of 2020, 28 people died from overdoses.
“The problem has been here,” he said. “How bad that problem is, I don’t know. We are trying to get a grip on it.”
The majority of overdoses are fentanyl-related, an opioid 50 times stronger than heroin, Sarhatt explained. The CNT has also seen instances of the opioid being laced or cross-contaminated with other drugs.
“The amount of fentanyl that can kill you is so small that it’s a one-shot deal,” Sarhatt said. “You could have someone just wanting to smoke a joint thinking it’s no big deal and that could have been cross-contaminated with fentanyl and they could end up dead.”
More data collection may also account for the increase in reported overdoses and deaths. The department began using an overdose mapping system to better track data.
Sarhatt assumed his role in October 2020 but isn’t a stranger to Savannah. He previously worked as a street agent for the Drug Enforcement Agency from 2003 to 2013 — a time when he didn’t even know what fentanyl was.
“The crisis changes all the time,” he explained. “So you try to be on the front end of it.”
Before fentanyl, heroin and cocaine use was the main issue in the county, Sarhatt said.
Data collected by the CNT shows people overdosing are largely between 25 to 40 years old, highlighting the need for early prevention.
“The old adages are so true,” Sarhatt said. “Just say no, as corny as it sounds. People can’t start.”
To Sarhatt, combating the opioid crisis is a larger group effort that includes his department, the medical field, educators, recovery centers and prevention programs.
While the CNT is focused on the enforcement side, including seizing drugs and tracking down suppliers, Sarhatt said awareness is key to solving the ongoing issue.
“Understand the addiction,” he said. “There’s a lot of people that would say, ‘Oh just don’t do it anymore.’ That is not the case. The opioids totally rework the brain functions.”
Sarhatt said the CNT is trying to get more involved in the prevention area and is discussing hosting community events to help spread awareness.