The overdose next door: How Shelby County is fighting the opioid crisis

Updated: Nov. 18, 2019 at 9:45 PM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Mid-South first responders, law enforcement officers and health officials have answered calls to more than 2,600 suspected drug overdoses in Shelby County since the beginning of the year.

Now a new approach to ending overdoses targets areas where they happen the most.

At 45, John Marino likes to spend time with his granddaughter, but a majority of Marino's life was spent on a different path.

"It wasn’t even living. You just exist. That’s to the point I got. I just existed,” said Marino.

Until four years ago, Marino was a drug addict. Cocaine as a teen. Opioids once he got older.

Mug shots document his path of self-destruction.

"I’d have to wake up and eat 10 10 mg Valiums. Most people couldn’t function. That was just to be OK,” said Marino.

He spent years in and out of institutions, rehab centers and jail.

Marino lost jobs, destroyed relationships and became homeless.

"You’re OK with what’s going on. You think that’s the normal. That’s the norm because everybody you’re around is like that because that’s who you surround yourself with,” said Marino.

On two separate occasions, Marino almost died from drug overdoses. Nalaxone, a narcotic used to treat overdoses in emergencies, saved his life.

He’s one of the lucky ones.

"There’s really no community that’s spared in Shelby County. That all races are impacted. Both genders are impacted and the age groups vary widely,” said Dr. Alisa Hausehalter, director of the Shelby County Health Department.

Data obtained from the Shelby County Health Department shows 164 deaths related to suspected drug overdose in 2017. The following year, records show a 30% increase in overdose deaths.

In just the first nine months of this year, health officials attributed 227 deaths in Shelby County to suspected drug overdoses.

Now a new tool can track overdoses, the ones that result in death and those that don’t. It provides health professionals and law enforcement invaluable data to fight the opioid epidemic in real time.

It’s called an Overdose Map or OD Map, and Shelby County is the first in the state to use it.

"We receive data from the City of Memphis as well as the other six municipalities from their fire, primarily ambulance service. In some cases it could be police,” said Hausehalter.

Here’s how it works: Data gets entered into OD MAP and points get plotted on a map with information like whether Naloxone was administered and the time of day the call for help came in.

"It allows us to figure out where the criminal activity happening, when it’s happening and then getting resources in there to prevent the next death,” said Shelby County District Attorney Amy Weirich.

This map displays the rate of reported drug overdose events in Shelby County by zip code from...
This map displays the rate of reported drug overdose events in Shelby County by zip code from January through October of 2019. Rates are based on ACS 2017 5-year population estimates. Data displayed in this map is provisional and subject to change. (Shelby County Health Department)(Shelby County Health Department)

Using this data, the health department created “heat maps” to show the hardest hit areas in Shelby County. Zip codes with the highest number of overdose events from January to October of 2019 include 38109, which encompasses Southwest Memphis and parts of Whitehaven.

OD Map shows 198 incidents there over the past 10 months, 168 incidents in 38118, the Parkway Village area, and 38104, which includes Midtown, Central Gardens and Cooper-Young.

The Frayser zip code 38127 saw 156 suspected overdoses while the Berclair, High Point Terrace, Grahamwood and The Heights zip code recorded 152 incidents.

"What we know about their pattern and their habits is that they typically use almost immediately where they're purchasing so the drug transaction is occurring and then the overdose is occurring very quickly right after that in that location,” said U.S. Attorney Mike Dunavant.

Having exact addresses helps law enforcement agencies not only target areas for prosecution but also intervention.

"It requires education and awareness. It requires prevention. It requires treatment and then of course, enforcement,” said Dunavant.

It’s a high-tech treatment plan to prevent the overdose next door and give more people like John Marino a fighting chance.

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