At least seven people have been hospitalized in Warner Robins after overdosing on what police believe was counterfeit Percocet. (Photo courtesy Warner Robins Police Department)

Counterfeit drugs blamed for seven overdoses in Warner Robins

At least seven people have been hospitalized in Warner Robins after overdosing on what police believe was counterfeit Percocet, a white pill that local officials fear is much like the yellow one blamed for three deaths and 29 overdoses in middle Georgia earlier this summer.

Warner Robins police on Tuesday issued a public alert after seven people overdosed within 48 hours.

“At this time, officers believe a strand of tainted Percocet is the cause of several overdoses that have left patients on ventilators,” said police spokeswoman Jennifer Parsons.

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She said the pill identified in the most recent overdoses is similar to real Percocet, but it is different from the yellow pill that was blamed for 32 overdoses in four Georgia counties in June. The pill Warner Robins police seized in recent days is white but thicker and glossier than real Percocet, Parsons said.

Methadone is an opioid painkiller. It has been a less expensive treatment for addiction for four decades. It takes longer for the body to process methadone — as much as six times longer than hydrocodone and up to three times longer than OxyContin. So it is used to prevent withdrawal symptoms and reduce cravings. But the slow-acting nature of methadone also makes it easy for users to take too much, officials say. It can be dangerous if the dosages are not closely monitored, especially if a user takes

rising tide of opioid addiction has been feeding an escalating public health crisis nationally and in Georgia. As dealers become more sophisticated, officials are also seeing synthetic opioids with varying chemical compositions. The Georgia Bureau of Investigation’s forensic crime lab has found some synthetic drugs contain chemicals that can be deadly just by touching them. The pills found in middle Georgia in June contained a fentanyl analogue that the state lab had never seen.

The white pills that caused the Warner Robins overdoses in the past two days have not been analyzed, so it’s not yet known if they are chemically similar to the yellow pills from the June cases. GBI spokeswoman Nelly Miles said the Warner Robins pills will be tested soon.

“We’re definitely going to make it a priority,” Miles said.

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When the overdoses were reported in middle Georgia in June, the state issued an alert and warned against taking any painkillers that were bought from individuals and not from a pharmacy.

The GBI went to far as to warn against even touching the pills without gloves because the fentanyl analogue, imported from China, could be absorbed through the skin. GBI director Vernon Keenan said even dealers are wearing rubber gloves when they handle the counterfeit pills.

“Some of these drugs are so new that no one knows how a human being reacts to it,” Keenan said.

Yellow pills that appear similar to Percocet have been blamed for four deaths in middle Georgia. (Photo: Bibb County Sheriff’s Office)
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Initially, health officials said four people had died in June — two in Bibb County and one each in Monroe and Houston Counties. But the Bibb County sheriff later said one of the deaths in the Macon area could not be attributed to the counterfeit Percocet.

Counterfeit opioids, Keenan said, are more dangerous than the real drugs.

Between January 2015 and the end of last May, the GBI’s lab tested 454 exhibits of counterfeit pills. The top chemicals found in those counterfeit drugs are alprazolam, fentanyl, U-47700 or “pink” and etizolam. While the pills being seized in middle Georgia are stamped “PERCOCET,” the GBI said the top counterfeited logos stamped on pills that they are seeing most are Xanax and oxycodone.

Last year, 110 people, whose autopsies were performed by the GBI, died after taking fentanyl. Miles said fentanyl was the cause in at least 60 deaths so far this year but that number does not include the “analogues” nor does it include all overdoes in the state since the GBI does not all perform autopsies for at least seven of the largest counties.

“The Percocet … can’t kill you like this counterfeit,” Keenan said. “With this, all you have to do it take it (counterfeit drugs).”

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