Following worst year for drug overdose deaths, St. Tammany tries to curb opioid addiction
150 people died of drug overdoses in St. Tammany in 2021
Eric Bowen had overdosed before, but this time the officials at Michelle Arthur’s door were delivering news no parent should have to hear.
“New Year’s Eve, I was ready to go to work and the coroner’s knocking on my door saying they found him deceased,” Arthur said of her son.
Bowen, 32, of Slidell, had been found dead inside a dilapidated house frequented by drug users on New Year’s Eve, 2021. He had OD’d on fentanyl.
“He thought he was buying heroin and apparently he wasn’t,” said his mother.
For several years now, public health authorities in St. Tammany Parish have watched with horror as the number of drug overdose deaths rose from 53 in 2016 to a staggering 150 last year.
The numbers in St. Tammany are trending down this year, with 35 overdose deaths recorded through July. But if the first half of 2022 promised a respite, the deaths of a 15-year-old girl and a 22-year-old from the same pills last week illustrated once again how formidable the drug problem is.
The 150 people who died of drug overdoses in 2021 were a record high, the St. Tammany Parish Coroner’s Office said. Of those deaths, 132 were opioid-related, including the highly potent synthetic opioid, fentanyl.
“Eric was He was one of the smartest people anyone could ever meet,” said his mother.
But he suffered from depression and anger issues. His father had spent time in jail, which weighed heavily on him, Arthur said. At 17, Eric joined the military, became a paratrooper and saw combat in Iraq in 2003. He got injured in a parachute jump. and developed back and knee problems, and the opioid dependency began.
“It’s a typical, cliché story,” Arthur said.
St. Tammany recorded 109 overdose deaths in 2020, the Coroner’s Office said, a significant increase over the 67 in 2019.
Dr. Greg Caudill, medical director of Alchemy Addiction Recovery in Slidell and president of the state’s Addiction Medicine Society, is familiar with fentanyl in all its forms. “It’s easily transported. Easily hidden and smuggled,” he said.
But it can also be incredibly dangerous, as evidenced by the deaths Tuesday.
Those deaths prompted St. Tammany Parish Coroner Charles Preston to send out a media alert warning drug users that a wave of possibly tainted drugs might be washing over the parish.
The girl who died had taken several pills; the man had taken a single pill. The St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office was trying to expedite the toxicology testing of any drugs or residue at the scenes to help determine what caused the fatalities, Preston’s office said.
“I am very concerned that our community may be experiencing illicit drug trade that involves intentionally tainted pills,” Preston said.
Caudill said the fentanyl is often more potent than users realize.
“More recently it’s just pure fentanyl even when patients think they’re using something else. It’s why overdoses have become more prevalent and the amount it takes to produce a lethal overdose is very small,” he said, noting that when it first started showing up around the parish, it was laced with heroin.
The synthetic drug has also been discovered in drugs that users and health professionals alike didn’t expect.
“I’ve seen fentanyl mixed in with methamphetamine and there’s a lot of methamphetamine in St. Tammany Parish compared to New Orleans,” Caudill said. “I’ve seen people that didn’t even like opioids overdose on fentanyl because they thought they were buying methamphetamine.”
According to lab testing by the Drug Enforcement Agency, the counterfeit pills are often made to look like prescription pills including Percocet, Vicodin, and Adderall, and are sold as such.
Caudill said that once ingested, even in tiny amounts, fentanyl can induce an overdose by suppressing the respiratory system and lowering one’s blood pressure.
Last year, St. Tammany Parish President Mike Cooper, along with Preston, distributed nearly 2,000 kits of Narcan, a medicine that can quickly reverse an opioid overdose. Residents can pick them up at no cost from fire stations and the Florida Parishes Human Services Authority.
Law enforcement officials have been trying to keep up. In March, Slidell police arrested 80 people and recovered over 600 grams of methamphetamine, heroin, and fentanyl.
“Slidell is a small-knit community, there was just so much (drug use) surrounding us,” Arthur said, ticking off a list of users she knew. “It was draining as a family.”