Spike in heroin overdose deaths spurs morgue expansion in Georgia

The Georgia Bureau of Investigation's Medical Examiner's office in south DeKalb County broke ground on a $4.5 million project to expand its morgue and office space. The need for more space is partially attributable to increasing opioid overdose rates, according to WABE.

The project includes a new 10,000-square-foot, three-story building, which will house office space for investigators, conference rooms and the GBI's child death investigative unit. The GBI is also working to renovate and expand its morgue by approximately 3,000 feet.

Jonathan Eisenstat, MD, Georgia's chief medical examiner, told WABE his office is handling nearly twice the amount of cases associated with overdose deaths compared to just a few years ago.

"There are new drugs that are being produced in clandestine labs that are less expensive than buying prescription medications," said Dr. Eisenstat. "Those drugs are more potent and we're seeing more deaths as a result of that."

Fentanyl, one of the drugs Dr. Eisenstat is referencing, is 50 times more potent than morphine. The Drug Enforcement Agency believes hundreds of thousands of counterfeit pills laced with the substance have infiltrated the U.S. drug market. Heroin cut with fentanyl has also been linked to a string of overdose deaths in the U.S.

During a drug bust in the Atlanta metropolitan area this summer, the GBI confiscated a synthetic opioid called carfentanil, which is 100 times stronger than fentanyl and designed to tranquilize large animals like elephants. Drug dealers are cutting carfentanil into heroin to stretch supply and produce a more intense high. Investigators in the GBI crime lab now wear protective face masks when inspecting heroin because, if the product is cut with carfentanil, they could accidently inhale enough of the deadly substance to overdose.

According to the GBI, in 2014, 61 people died of heroin-related overdoses in Georgia. In 2015, that number jumped to 134.

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