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DIGGING DEEPER: Tracking drug overdoses to save lives

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PIMA COUNTY, Ariz. - Pima County has put together an Overdose Fatality Review Committee to take a close look at drug overdoses, and to provide answers to prevent deaths.

The Digging Deeper team looked into the idea, and learned this team is needed now more than ever.

Opioid addiction is a national health problem and impacts the entire community.

It's estimated 70,000 people nationwide died of drug overdoses.

Here in Pima County last year, it's estimated between 330 and 340 people died, and approximately one-quarter of that was due to fentanyl.

The Pima County Health Department received a grant and put together a committee to find out and understand the circumstances surrounding fatal drug overdoses.

In 2018, Tucson Police were called to a southside home where five people overdosed.

TPD officers quickly reached for the Narcan to administer it. Four survived, but one didn't make it. The group thought they were taking oxycodone but it was actually fentanyl.

Neil Holding can relate. He says he's overdosed three times.

“About two years ago probably accidentally using something with fentanyl some heroin that had fentanyl in it,” Holding told News 4 Tucson.

Holding was sober for five years and during that time he went back to school at the University of Arizona, he had a job and then he got ill and went back to using drugs.

“It happens as a result of not being aware of your tolerance - being clean for some time getting out of jail or a hospital or treatment and quickly using the same amount of expecting the same amount of rush and that's the general mistake,” Holding told the Digging Deeper team.

It’s a mistake that causes death and recently, too many deaths.

“As our trends grew to the state we are in now, with the number of fatalities we are in need for a team like this even more important,” said Mark Person, with the Pima County Health Department.

A team made up of law enforcement, the Medical Examiner’s Office, hospital employees and social workers will retrace the months, weeks, days and hours of the victims before they overdosed and died.

That's where the Medical Examiner's office comes in.

“They can tell you what drug killed a person but they can't tell you where it came from,” Person told News 4 Tucson.

Law enforcement can possibly connect the dots to the person or persons who sold the drug.

“You've got the confirmed  drug through blood tox but then law enforcement and their investigations is what we have to tie that too a specific dealer,” Person added.

It’s a difficult task, but it’s not impossible.

“We do have cases in the court pending right now and have successfully prosecuted cases against drug dealers that have resulted in the death of people,” Tucson Police Captain John Leavitt, who heads the Counter Narcotics Alliance, told News 4 Tucson.

Holding is sober again and now working at Amity Circle Tree Ranch as a counselor.

“Something has to be done it's truly an epidemic not that's not always hasn't been there but now it's right in our face so I think it's a good thing,” Holding said.

The fatality review committee meets twice a month and selects random cases, with a goal of helping prevent future overdose deaths.

Lupita Murillo

Lupita Murillo is an investigative reporter. She is part of the Digging Deeper team that uncovers important issues focusing on crime that affects the community.

Paul Birmingham

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