(Photo illustration by Lindy Dugger Cordell, RN-T.com)

"It's definitely a true epidemic," Mayor Jamie Doss said. "This might be the No. 1 crisis in our country right now, because of the number of people who are dying and the fact that it's not just in our community. It's everywhere."

Rome police reportedly saved two residents over the weekend by administering the NARCAN nasal spray they now routinely carry.

Assistant Chief Debbie Burnett said one was a 62-year-old man who overdosed on morphine tablets; the other was a 25-year-old man who is suspected to have overdosed on heroin.

The younger man became responsive in the ambulance, Burnett said, but police don't know the condition of either man. Their names are being withheld because the incidents are considered medical cases.  Neither died, according to Deputy Coroner Connie Chandler, who was on duty during the calls.

Burnett said Rome police are trained to recognize overdose symptoms and administer the counteracting nasal spray, although police records don't indicate the extent of the problem.

"It happens more often than the police know, because often the ambulance responds and they administer the NARCAN without ever calling us," she said.

Sixty-eight people in Floyd County died of overdoses between 2012 and 2016, according to a community assessment tool launched earlier this month by U.S. Department of Agriculture, headed by former Georgia governor Sonny Perdue.

That puts the annual mortality rate at 22.2 per 100,000 people — topping the state's rate of 16.8 and nearly equaling the national rate of 22.5.

The tool is part of the USDA's Rural Opioid Misuse Toolbox supporting grassroots strategies to address the opioid epidemic. On Tuesday the agency, along with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, unveiled another asset.

The Rural Resource Guide to Help Communities Address Substance Use Disorder and Opioid Misuse is a listing of federal programs local officials can tap. It's billed as "a first-of-its-kind, one-stop-shop for rural leaders looking for federal funding and partnership opportunities."

Doss said the challenges are vast, encompassing every level of government.

"We talk about prevention, treatment, recovery ... Illicit drugs are an issue, synthetic drugs are an issue, overprescribing drugs is an issue," he said. "And unless we work together as a city, county, state and nation, it's going to continue."

Both the Rome City and Floyd County commissions passed resolutions declaring opioids a "public nuisance" this year and joined a class action lawsuit against manufacturers and distributors of the drugs. However, they've also made it clear they don't believe government alone can solve the problem.

County Commissioner Allison Watters said she's meeting this week with Bonnie Moore, president of NAMI Rome, to strategize on how the National Alliance on Mental Illness can assist.

"It's a complex problem," Watters said. "It's going to take a concerted effort by government, healthcare, law enforcement, all the providers that touch on mental illness and recovery — and probably beyond that, the faith community and anyone that can help make a difference."

The county commission also joined a national initiative called Stepping Up, aimed at providing a support system to reduce recidivism in inmates struggling with mental illness and addictive disorders.

Watters said the program offers resources and information on ideas that have worked in other communities.

"It's still front and center on our minds and in our planning because we know the problem is not going away," she said. "Right now we're all sort of operating in silos. We need to be more efficient and effective in what we do."

Meanwhile, the class action lawsuit against a dozen or so top opioid manufacturers and distributors is cued up behind the bellwether cases in a federal district court in Ohio. Discovery is underway and the trial is scheduled for September 2019, according to Andy Davis of Brinson, Askew and Davis.

"The bellwether cases are the ones the court designated to go to trial. They'll be used as guidance for ours and the others," Davis said Tuesday.

Davis and Rome attorney Bob Finnell are the lead attorneys  representing Rome, Cartersville, Marietta and the counties of Floyd, Chattooga and Whitfield. They're seeking to recoup damages to their communities, with an eye to using the money to address the crisis.

Approximately 1,200 lawsuits are part of the multidistrict litigation before U.S. District Court Judge Dan Polster in Ohio, Davis said, and another 500 or so are proceeding in different states around the country.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention announced in October 2017 that the rates of drug overdose deaths in rural areas have surpassed those in urban areas of the country.