Calls come in at all hours of the day to Polk County Coroner Tony Brazier, who along with deputies Marty Robinson and Ivan Warner have been kept busy of late running to one scene after the next.
Brazier is usually the one who sees people in their last extremities whether in bed or on the floor, as death comes in their sleep or suddenly as a person falls to the floor unresponsive.
When someone dies in this manner and no one else is around — or even if they are — Brazier and his deputies are usually called out to investigate.
There are indicators that can tell a trained coroner what they should expect from someone who died of natural causes, and someone who hasn’t. Most cases Brazier, Robinson and Warner face are easy to solve.
Over the past years however, there has been a growing number of people who are dying from unnatural causes, leaving behind grieving families who saw their loved one destroyed by problems they couldn’t overcome.
Addiction is taking a toll on Polk County in ways still yet unforeseen, but the coroner’s office finds themselves on the front line in a fight to keep people from ending up in the local morgue.
Now the county is joining others around the country to take a first step to push back and potentially recoup some of the expenses already incurred against companies they see as bearing blame for the increasing problem of opioid addiction.
Polk County Commissioners voted during their March session to move forward with Cedartown law firm Parker and Lundy as their representation in a lawsuit against several drug makers, partnering with other municipalities around the country who are seeking damages based on the amount of money spent combating opioid addiction and the subsequent problems, like drug trafficking and overdose deaths, that come along with it.
Lawsuits against drug manufacturers are being established because they see pharmaceutical manufacturers who pushed drugs like OxyContin, hydrocodone and many other that were initially thought of as safe alternatives to traditional opiate-based pain medications like morphine only ended up causing patients to become addicted, thus causing a widespread epidemic across the country of increasing opioid use, and subsequent death.
Here’s the problem, as Brazier sees it: the more people who are prescribed pain medications that are derived from opioids, the larger pool of people there are who will end up addicted to those drugs.
Then in turn when they lose access to the medications because doctors then refuse to give any additional doses due to drug-seeking behavior, those addicted patients then turn to the streets to get their fix.
Illicit drugs — heroin, opium, medications stolen or sold by other patients — do much more harm than what doctors are prescribing, since anything can be laced into the drugs themselves without a buyer’s knowledge.
The consequences of that are evidenced by the number of overdose deaths last year due to fentanyl and carfentanyl, something that lawmakers and law enforcement have tried to combat.
“We’ve got to stop it, somewhere or somehow,” Brazier said. “If not we’re going to lose a tremendous number of innocent people who have become addicted to opioids and progress right into heroin and other drugs, and once they get to that point they’re lost.”
The problem hasn’t suddenly gotten any better, especially locally. In the past three and a half months, Brazier said he and his deputies have seen 44 overdose deaths come through the coroner’s office.
So once every few days, Brazier or one of his deputies are called out to a scene and then after some brief examination of a body, and the surroundings, determine that they believe the person who has died likely overdosed. But the work doesn’t stop there for the coroners.
Brazier said hours are spent re-examining a body and surrounding, searching for medications and drugs, making sure what is found is handled and destroyed safely, and processing blood and urine to send on to the GBI crime lab for testing so that an official cause of death can then be listed on a death certificate.
Of those 44 deaths in over three months, Brazier said that only three have been completely processed out in just the past week.
Additionally, his department is out of money for the budget year.
“I had to go to the county and advise them that they had to move more money to the general fund into my budget for my agency to function,” Brazier said. “Ninety-nine percent of that cost is directly attributed to overdoses, scene processing and cataloging of evidence as they relate to accidental drug overdoses.”
Which in turns means that commissioners will have to pass an additional budget amendment at the end of the year and find more money to cover what was spent.
The three coroners are all paid by the call, and the county budgets annually based on what they believe the estimates will be for the number of times a coroner is called out to a death scene to investigate.
So Brazier is especially appreciative of the county commission’s decision to join in litigation to go after the drug makers who seem to be at the center of the problem.
That’s only some of the costs the county can recoup from involving themselves in litigation seeking damages to cover what was spent fighting against opioid addiction. Law enforcement spend thousands of man hours a year fighting against drugs already in the community, with additional costs bore by police officers as they seek to combat trade in opioids and pain medication.
Overdoses alone can take up time for police officers. Though Rockmart Police Chief Keith Sorrells reported that in the city his officers have only responded to four calls in recent memory, two of those involved people who died.
Additionally, drugs that are laced with something more dangerous than what it is purported to be can harm police officers and paramedics just trying to help as easily as they can those who are taking the drugs.
Emergency services spend more being called out to a scene to help someone who has overdosed on a drug.
Hospitals bear the brunt of treatment when those patients come in and have no money or insurance to cover their bills.
The list grows on and on.
Commission chair Jennifer Hulsey — is also helping to organize the new Meth Alliance in Polk County, which was set to meet Monday after press time — felt the lawsuit is a step in the right direction for the county. “Polk County takes the opioid crisis very seriously. We know the devastation the crisis is creating in so many communities across the United States,” Hulsey said.
“Polk County is no different, and the board is listening to its citizens. We want those who are profiting and destroying our community with these drugs to know we are no longer going to sit back and be silent.”
She added that the county was looking forward to working with Parker and Lundy on the lawsuit.
For now, the fight continues local first responders remain on the front line.
Part of that contingent is a coroner’s office overburdened with the loss of life, hoping that some strategy will slow down the numbers of the dying.
“It absolutely breaks my heart whether it was a youth or an aged person who has died and we learn it was due to an accidental drug overdose,” Brazier said. “It’s got to stop somewhere. We’ve got to save lives.”