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Suspected overdose at Freedom 1 of 26 reported in 2 weeks in Burke

One suspected overdoses was a student at Freedom High School

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Overdose calls in Burke County have seen a jump over the last two weeks, and one of those calls took place at a Morganton high school.

Around 11:30 a.m. Monday, the Morganton Department of Public Safety and Burke County EMS were dispatched to Freedom High School for a suspected overdose, said MDPS Capt. Jason Whisnant.

MDPS officers arrived at the scene within minutes and it was reported a student believed they were overdosing after taking gummy bears that were laced with an unknown substance, he said.

Officers administered Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose, as a precaution, Whisnant said.

Burke County EMS Capt. Brad Browning confirmed the student was transported to a local hospital.

Cheryl Shuffler, public information officer for Burke County Public Schools, said the school system recently partnered with the Burke Substance Abuse Network to provide training for school counselors.

She said BSAN leaders set up a simulated bedroom with suspicious items that adults might not be aware could be related to drugs or other destructive behaviors.

“They had five minutes to search the room,” she said. “For example, if there was a wad of cash hidden in something or false bottoms on a soda can just to make the counselors aware of where kids are hiding stuff and the kinds of things kids are hiding.”

According to Shuffler, school counselors went through the room and learned about the different ways teenagers hide things and warning signs to look for. She said the program is available to individual schools and for parents and community members as well.

But the Monday overdose at Freedom wasn’t the only call of the sort in the county recently. Browning said it was just one of 26 overdose calls EMS personnel have responded to since Feb. 18.

Burke County Sheriff Steve Whisenant said 14 of those 26 calls took place in the last week, and two of them resulted in deaths – though officials won’t be completely certain overdoses caused the deaths until autopsy and toxicology reports are returned, a process that could take several months.

The rise in overdoses is a startling trend officers have noticed in the last couple of years.

Capt. Whisnant said in 2020, MDPS officers administered Narcan 24 times. In 2021, that number rose to 39.

So far this year, MDPS officers have had to administer Narcan 10 times, Whisnant said.

“The potency of what people are taking is much higher than it was years ago, and there are so many unknown substances in illicit drugs,” Whisnant said. “You’re gambling with your own life every time people inject these drugs.”

Apart from the recent spike in overdoses, officers have seen another startling trend in overdose calls.

“We’re seeing younger and younger people experimenting with drugs,” Whisnant said. “Talk to your children. Talk to your teenagers. Talk about the dangers. Experimentation with marijuana in 1980 is completely different than experimenting with drugs in 2022 due to how contaminated the drugs can be with very deadly substances.”

He said investigators have seen things like speedballing, where methamphetamine and fentanyl, a synthetic opioid the FDA said is 80-100 times stronger than morphine, are mixed.

Evidence of that came in a Thursday evening release from the Burke County Sheriff’s Office, where deputies arrested a man for possession of methamphetamine and fentanyl. The release said the fentanyl seized could have caused 500 fatal overdoses.

Whisnant said officers have seen an increase in people carrying Narcan or having a friend or relative carry Narcan in the case of an overdose, and encouraged anyone struggling with addiction to reach out to resources like Burke Recovery, a local nonprofit that offers substance use treatment, and A Caring Alternative, which offers behavioral health and substance use disorder services.

“Addiction is hard to treat, it’s challenging to treat, but it is treatable,” Whisnant said. “Those struggling through addiction need to hold on to hope that it’ll get better.”

Chrissy Murphy and Jason Koon are staff writers. Murphy can be reached at cmurphy@morganton.com or at 828-432-8941. Koon can be reached at jkoon@morganton.com or at 828-432-8907.

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