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Five deaths in past two weeks suspected to be due to overdose

Five people have died from drug overdoses in Pearl River County in the past two weeks. County Coroner Derek Turnage suspects the deaths were caused by a bad batch of illegal drugs, possibly heroin.

“When drug overdoses and deaths occur in waves, it’s usually from dope that’s on the street that’s got high levels of fentanyl in it or some substance that’s causing a number of deaths at the same time,” he said.

The five deaths were unrelated cases and all were instances where people were suspected to be using illegal narcotics.

Turnage will not know for sure what caused the deaths until toxicology comes back, which takes six to eight weeks to confirm, but he suspects the overdoses were caused by something in the opiate family of heroin or fentanyl.

The deaths have been among people in ages ranging from 20 to 40.

“It’s a tragic situation to deal with the loss of a child due to a drug overdose. A lot of families battle with addiction for these loved ones. They battle these addictions for years,” said Turnage.

Out of Mississippi’s 82 counties, Pearl River County had the most suspected overdose deaths per 100,000 people at 49, according to the Mississippi State Department of Health Mississippi Opioid Dashboard.

Pearl River County also had the sixth highest number of suspected opioid deaths in the state from 2018 to 2020, at 27 suspected overdose deaths, according to the dashboard. Harrison, Hinds, DeSoto, Jackson and Rankin Counties ranked above Pearl River in the total number of suspected overdose deaths.

Over the years, Turnage has seen a shift from people abusing prescription drugs to using substances like heroin and fentanyl. In the 2000s, a high number of people were using prescription drugs, but the prescription monitoring program has brought more scrutiny to prescriptions for pain medications, Turnage said. Although there has been a decline in opioid prescriptions in Mississippi since 2017, the state still has one of the highest opioid prescription rates in the country, according to the Mississippi Opioid Dashboard.

“Doctors have reduced prescriptions they’re writing because of the monitoring program, which makes it harder to get on the street,” said Turnage.

So, more people are resorting to using substances like heroin.

“With your heroin, you’re getting fentanyl, and it’s just deadly,” said Turnage.

Turnage gets phone calls weekly from people who believe he can help them commit a family member for addiction or psychiatric treatment, but that is not part of a coroner’s responsibilities in Mississippi. Across the state line in Louisiana, coroners can have people emergently placed in treatment for psychiatric issues or drug issues. In Mississippi, those duties fall under the Chancery Clerk’s office.

Resources for addiction treatment in Pearl River County also include Pine Grove Recovery Center, which has a wealth of information on treatment options and resources and faith based programs like Jacob’s Well, the coroner said.

“It’s a tough thing. Police can’t arrest their way out of the problem. The answer lies within the addict. They’ve got control. They have to get to a point, usually it’s the lowest point, hopefully they don’t die before that point, but usually they have to get to a point, where they turn in a direction,” Turnage said.