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

Then they saw the man and woman slumped unresponsive in the front seat.

The doors were all locked and banging on the windows didn't wake them. Neither did yelling or shaking the vehicle. Finally, one officer smashed out a back window with his baton. The unconscious couple's shallow breaths and faint pulses — along with the presence of a used syringe on the floorboard — made the next step urgent.

"We've deployed Narcan," came a voice on the radio to update the 911 dispatcher directing an emergency medical services crew to the scene.

The nasal-spray version of naloxone is used for emergency treatment of a known or suspected opioid overdose. Local first responders started carrying it last year.

Rome Assistant Police Chief Debbie Burnett said Tuesday her officers have used it four times since it was first issued in early 2017, and three of those cases were this year.

"It's starting to increase is the problem; heroin and opium are starting to increase," Burnett said. "I know Fire and EMS use it more than we do and the county (police department) uses it too."

William Youngblood, 34, of 21 Rockwood Place, was driving Sunday night when the VW entered the lot of the Circle K, 1501 Martha Berry Highway, jumped the curb and hit the privacy fence in back. His passenger was Jaime Susanne Harmon, a 34-year-old woman from Ridgeway, Virginia.

By the time Redmond EMS arrived, the Narcan had started to work. Youngblood and Harmon were rushed to the hospital with resuscitation masks helping them breathe. They recovered to tell investigators their tales.

According to Rome Police Department reports:

During a search of the VW officers found two used syringes, which were sent to the GBI Crime Lab for analysis. Meanwhile, Harmon said during questioning that "the test would come back positive for heroin."

The couple said they met in a rehabilitation facility and had spent the past few days together. Harmon said she'd used heroin. Youngblood contended he was "clean" and had just fallen asleep at the wheel.

Police took Youngblood to jail, where he was cited for DUI and released. Potential charges of possessing opium or a derivative and drug-related objects are noted in the report.

"If the syringes and the material inside come back positive, they'll both be charged with that as well," Burnett said.

Targeting the epidemic

Opioid addiction is a national epidemic, declared after the death rate from synthetics spiked 72.2 percent from 2014 to 2015 and doubled the following year.

In Floyd County, prescriptions for opioid painkillers such as oxycodone and morphine were issued at a rate of 153.3 for every 100 residents in 2016, a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention study reported. The state recently tightened regulations for prescribers, but GBI officials have said that's been fueling a rise in street drugs like heroin.

Ansley Silvers is the director of addictive diseases in the Rome office of Highland Rivers Health and serves on the Georgia attorney general's Statewide Opioid Task Force. She said Tuesday that the threat of an epidemic in Floyd County is now reality.

"It's not just coming, it's here," Silvers said.

There's been a noticeable increase in heroin use during the past six months, she said, and in other unregulated drugs that are even more addictive and dangerous than prescription painkillers.

"Because opiates are so difficult to get these days, people who are dependant are getting more creative in very unfortunate ways that can be very catastrophic," Silvers said.

And because there's a stigma attached to addiction, people are dying rather than asking for help, she added.

Burnett said police are trying to educate the public about Georgia's Good Samaritan Law. It doesn't address the stigma, but it eliminates the fear of arrest.

"If they know someone has OD'd and they want to call for help, the Good Samaritan is not going to be charged," Burnett said. "Or if you need help yourself, you can call ... The purpose of the Good Samaritan Law is to get these people life-saving help."

State law also allows residents to buy and carry Narcan, in case of an overdose emergency. Silvers said she has hundreds of kits to give away free at the Highland Rivers office, 6 Mathis Drive, but she cautioned that a dose only brings temporary relief.

"It's like an EpiPen for someone who is allergic to bee stings. It is life-saving," she said. "It's not treatment, it just saves your life."

The Rome and Floyd County governments are attacking the problem from a wider perspective, joining a class-action lawsuit against the major manufacturers and distributors of the painkillers.

The suit, filed in March by a group of attorneys — including Bob Finnell in Rome and Andy Davis of Brinson, Askew, Berry et al — contends that the drugs were heavily marketed as safe and effective when the makers knew they were highly addictive.

"If any funds are awarded, we'll have a plan for the use of those funds," County Commission Chair Rhonda Wallace said Tuesday.

County Commissioners met with representatives of the medical community in February to discuss the issues and Wallace said they want to develop a local remedy. The problem is complicated, she said, because opioid users are typically addicted to multiple substances.

The county's mental health court and drug court are two ongoing efforts to break the cycle in individuals, Wallace said, and the board is mulling the creation of a citizen panel to come up with other solutions.

Rome Mayor Jamie Doss said city officials are monitoring the situation and are alert to the needs of police and first responders.

"There's no secret about the devastation and sadness of this crisis," Doss said.

Associate Editor Doug Walker contributed to this report.

NOTE: This report was updated to correct the number of times Rome police deployed Narcan.