Nearly a year later, a mother waits for closure in son’s death as NC medical examiner’s office faces challenges

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — A mother’s been waiting almost a year for closure and answers. Kelley Blas is waiting for the official cause of her son’s death.

On June 21, 2023, Blas lost her son John Steen to an accidental overdose.

“We don’t know what exactly it was that took John, because we don’t have a toxicology report, we don’t have an autopsy, we don’t have a death certificate,” Blas said.

Blas said she never thought she’d be waiting upwards of 11 months to receive the documents. 

The North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services said there are staffing troubles at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner (OCME.)

“NCDHHS has ongoing concerns about staff vacancies and high turnover at OCME, which have a negative impact on the system’s ability to maintain high-quality services for North Carolinians,” said NCDHHS.

Read more: Nearly a year later, a mother waits for closure in son’s death as NC medical examiner’s office faces challenges

Blas knows how much closure those reports could bring. She lost her older son David to an intentional overdose in 2017 after struggles with mental health.  Four months after David’s death, Blas said she received the papers she once again is waiting for.

“I only could open it up just to read the cause of death, which I knew what it was, but I needed, I needed to see it,” Blas said. “And once I saw it, I closed it and locked it up in a box and I haven’t really looked at it since then. But it just gave me a sense of just, okay, this part is done, I don’t have to think of my child being in a morgue.”

DHHS said each case is different, so there is no typical time frame for completing reports. 

Blas said the state medical examiner’s office told her John’s case is complete, but pending pathology review.

OCME has 15 permanent state positions that are vacant, equal to a 20% vacancy rate, according to NCDHHS. NCDHHS said that includes four vacant pathologist positions (out of 13.)

At the same time, the caseload is growing, with a 26% case increase from 2019 to 2023, according to NCDHHS. The department said it is undoubtedly influenced by a 69% rise in suspected overdose deaths.

“A backlog in OCME creates challenges for law enforcement, attorneys, our public health partners and for the families and communities left behind,” said NCDHHS.

Blas emphasizes she’s not the only one waiting for closure, hearing stories of similar or longer waits from other families who lost also lost children to overdoses.

“When you lose someone, that already causes suffering, and then when you have to compound that by extending these waits longer and longer, I just, I’m not sure that others really understand what that’s like,” Blas said.

NCDHHS pointed to several recommendations in Governor Roy Cooper’s proposed budget, including:

  • Support expanded capacity by adding 35 permanent, state-funded positions to the OCME workforce;    
  • Strengthen and support local medical examiners by increasing their payments from $200 to $400 per case and would more adequately cover the cost of their time and mileage to/from a scene;   
  • Ensure local medical examiners are adequately supplied with scene kits, cameras and other necessary equipment to do their job;   
  • Improve communication for families, law enforcement, attorneys and others about the status of a medical examiner case by developing a 24-hour call center and self-service portal to more timely deliver case status information;    
  • Allow OCME to fully staff second and weekend shifts by providing compensation for OCME staff who are assigned non-traditional work hours; and   
  • Increase OCME’s ability to handle more cases though the much-needed expansion/renovation of the OCME location in Raleigh.    

Read the article and watch the video on the CBS17 website.

Drugs sold as fentanyl in Goldsboro, Edgecombe overdoses contained 8 different substances

Xylazine, Benzatropine, a hallucinogen and another kind of designer chemical among drugs detected in sample linked to dozens of eastern North Carolina overdoses.

It’s been six weeks since four people died in Goldsboro in four days and more than a dozen others across eastern North Carolina overdosed in a matter of weeks.

Families, community members and law enforcement have been searching for answers about what caused this uptick.

This week, scientists at the UNC Street Drug Analysis Lab were able to provide those. The test results from a sample collected in a baggie show that what was sold as illegal fentanyl was actually a mixture of eight different drugs.

“It turns out it was a particularly nasty mix of substances that involved fentanyl and xylazine, Benzatropine, a hallucinogen and another kind of designer chemical,” said Dr. Nabarun Dasgupta, a senior scientist in the lab. “It was really unexpected so it’s not surprising that a mix like that leads to a lot of overdoses.”

The lab has partnerships with dozens of health organizations, including Edgecombe County EMS. In the weeks since the uptick in overdoses in the county, Dalton Barrett and Dasgupta have formed a friendship as they both work with the common goal to address the crisis in a data-driven, science-led manner.

“This was pretty eye opening for us,” Barrett said. “When I saw the results, there was a number of things that I’d never seen before in Edgecombe County, per se, and it didn’t really make sense as far as the mixture.”

Read more: Drugs sold as fentanyl in Goldsboro, Edgecombe overdoses contained 8 different substances

This is their second attempt at trying to identify what was in the supply that resulted in 16 nonfatal overdoses in Edgecombe during a two-week span last month. The first sample came from a dollar bill but there wasn’t enough residue for an analysis.

“I was extremely disappointed about the dollar bill sample,” Dalton said. ” I felt like maybe I had done something wrong or we just didn’t get lucky and sometimes that’s just how it goes. But being able to put our finger on this is gonna be a big, big deal for us.”

This time, the sample came from a stamp bag. The street product is known as Pringles.

What’s particularly unsettling: a few months earlier Barrett had samples tested from a different bag that had the same stamp and the results came back vastly different.

“Usually, we try and think about these stamps as like, labels on a beer bottle like this is Michelob Ultra, this is this and it’s like the same thing, time and time again,” Barrett explained. “But that’s not the case.”

Barrett says people in the community likely didn’t know that it was a mixture of so many substances since it had that same stamp and they had been safe using it in the past.

“Even the person selling it probably had no idea that it contained these substances,” Dasgupta said.

With the variety of drugs in the supply, WRAL News asked whether would naloxone work to reverse an overdose. Both men said yes, but the people probably would’ve remained unconscious because of how potent the substance was. It is unclear if xyzlazine testing strips would have worked in this case.

Barrett says they’re unsure if this contaminated supply remains in the area. They’ve seen a 33% drop in overdoses this month compared to last. Still, he says it’s “a big, big deal” they were able to put their finger on what exactly is in supply and he is hopeful the results will raise awareness and save lives.

“Seeing people of my age dying from something that we can prevent really kind of tickles my heartstrings as a medical professional,” Barrett said.

New opioid overdose plan approved unanimously for Wake County Public School System

CARY, N.C. (WTVD) — There’s a push to get a life-saving medication in every Wake County school.

Wake County Public Schools Board of Education voted unanimously on Tuesday to approve a new Naloxone policy.

Last month, Wake County school board members approved a new policy that requires all county schools to keep a supply of Naloxone – also known by its brand name Narcan – and train faculty members on how to use it.

Before the vote, school resource officers already carried Narcan, but not every Wake County school has an SRO. The newly approved plan requires at least three staff members at each school to be trained and able to administer the drug in case of an emergency. However, it fell short of requiring Naloxone to be kept on campus.

According to state health data, Naloxone was used for suspected overdoses 21 times on schools’ ground statewide in 2023.

“If we have a tool that can save a life, particularly one of our student’s lives,” Chris Heagarty, Wake County School board chair, said, “we want to do everything we can to take those steps.”

Under the new plan, each school principal will designate three or more people on their staff as a part of a medical care program. Those designated people will receive initial training and annual training on how to properly store naloxone, as well as how to administer it.

Each school principal will also need to come up with an emergency action plan for the use of naloxone that complies with all state laws.

“There’s definitely been people at my school that do drugs and it would be best if we had something like that on campus. God forbid something happens,” Cary High School student Emily Ranft said.

“I personally think it should be available in every school. Just because you never know. Better safe than sorry,” Dr. Collin Welteroth said.

This policy is personal for some Wake County mothers.

Barb Walsh, back in December, urged the school board to consider requiring Naloxone be put in schools countywide.

Walsh’s daughter Sophia, died nearly three years ago from fentanyl poisoning. She was drinking from a water bottle that had the dangerous opioid mixed into it.

She made it her mission to not only support families like hers but also promote the life-saving medicine Naloxone.

“It doesn’t take an army. It doesn’t take a lobbyist,” Walsh said to ABC11 in April. “It takes a mom who’s lost a child to stand in front of the school board to make this happen. And that’s significant.”

Tuesday’s Wake County school board meeting starts at 1 p.m.

Plan to supply Narcan in schools approved in Wake County for opioid emergencies

RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — The Wake County School board approved a policy to make naloxone, commonly known as Narcan, available in all schools and to train school staff to use it.

The newly-approved policy enables the district to put naloxone in schools across the county and train at least three people in each school to administer it if someone has an emergency that appears to be opioid-related.

Barb Walsh, whose daughter died after accidentally being exposed to fentanyl, came to the meeting with a large picture of her daughter and boxes of naloxone. She pleaded with the board to act quickly.

“Ten people die each day in North Carolina from fentanyl, and it’s in products people don’t know it’s in,” she said. “Kids may not intentionally take it, but they will die and this is how we’re going to save lives.”

She emphasized that it’s important to have naloxone in schools that serve children of all ages.

“We do not know what the environments of the children are, so we don’t know what age somebody will be ingesting fentanyl unintentionally, but the school will be ready.”

Before naloxone can be put in schools, though, the district has to obtain it. The board is looking at funding sources. One potential source of funding is Wake County’s opioid settlement money.

Applications are due by June 5, and the school board noted that deadline during Tuesday’s meeting. Board members decided to waive a second reading of the policy and move forward with approval, as staff said a policy must be in place before the board could apply for funding from the county.

WCPSS School Board approves Naloxone in Schools!

On May 21, 2024 at the Wake County Public School System board meeting Barbara Walsh spoke on the proposal to have Naloxone in all 200+ schools across Wake County.

Shortly after Barbara’s comments, WCPSS approved emergency use naloxone in all 200 schools! The second reading was waived and the motion PASSED!

Wake County Schools to consider implementing naloxone emergency use plan

The Wake County School Board is set to consider a proposal that would designate specific people on school campuses to be trained in administering naloxone in the event of an overdose emergency. However, it does not guarantee the availability of naloxone in every school.

Barb Walsh has dedicated her days to fighting the opioid epidemic. She has been steadfast in her pursuit for justice and bringing awareness to fentanyl fatalities and their families.

Walsh said her daughter Sophia died after drinking a water bottle with fentanyl in it. Now, she’s working to get naloxone in every school in the state.

“She could’ve been saved by naloxone, but she wasn’t,” Walsh told WRAL News. “She died instantly.”

Naloxone reverses the effects of opiates. On Tuesday, the Wake County School Board will consider implementing a naloxone emergency use plan.

Right now, school resource officers carry naloxone, but not every Wake County school has one.

“If [SROs] did receive that call to respond, and they were on campus, they will be able to arrive within minutes to be able to administer that Narcan, if needed,” said Sgt. Jeremy Pittman, with the Wake County Sheriff’s Office.

Read more: Wake County Schools to consider implementing naloxone emergency use plan

In the proposal, it says principals would designate specific people on campus who would get training to administer it in the event of an emergency.

“Naloxone devices will be stored in secure but unlocked and easily accessible locations. Each school principal shall designate one or more school personnel, as part of the medical care program under G.S. 115C-375.1, to receive initial training and annual retraining from a school nurse or qualified representative of the local health department regarding the storage and emergency use of naloxone devices. The training shall include basic instruction and information on how to administer naloxone. Only such trained personnel are authorized to administer naloxone to persons believed to be having an overdose reaction, “ it reads.

Additionally, the principal would collaborate with “appropriate school personnel” to create an emergency action plan, including a school-wide employee training to recognize the symptoms of an opioid overdose.

However, each school would not be required to have it.

“This policy also does not guarantee availability of naloxone devices at school, and students and parents/guardians should consult with their own physician(s) regarding such medication(s). Nothing in this policy should be construed to require the presence or use of naloxone on school property or at school sponsored events, unless otherwise required by law. The Board cannot and does not guarantee that naloxone or a person trained in its use will be available at any particular school site or school-sponsored event,” the proposal reads.

That’s because the drug comes with a price tag, according to a district spokesperson. The spokesperson said the district is still working to identify funding to get the drug in every school. The current budget does not reflect funding for naloxone in each school. However, it could change.

According to the North Carolina Department of Health and Human Services, “Opioid overdose on school grounds increased this school year, with 21 incidents of naloxone use.”

Of the 115 school districts in the state, 22 have a district-wide program supported with local policy and procedure, according to NCDHHS.

“Naloxone in schools is a safety policy,” Walsh said. “We have AEDs in schools; we have EpiPens in schools; we have fire extinguishers in schools. Naloxone is not different.”

Walsh said people also need to change their attitudes.

“Everybody gets judged. That judgment is the person, the victim, is somehow at fault, that they’re less than,” she said. “It is a medical emergency. That person’s life could be saved.”

Additionally, Walsh said implementing naloxone in each school will bring wider awareness to the issue in general.

“You’re also educating about the symptoms of fentanyl,” she said. “They’ll have more tools in their toolbox.”

The board has been supportive of the proposal in previous meetings. A final vote will be required after Tuesday’s meeting.

Read the article and watch the video on the WRAL TV5 News website.

Man pleads guilty to supplying drugs that led to fentanyl poisoning

CABARRUS COUNTY, N.C. — A person accused of supplying the drugs that led to a man’s death pleaded guilty in court on Friday.

The hearing was a long time coming for the family of Marshall Abbott, who died due to fentanyl poisoning in June 2022. He died one day before his 30th birthday.

Aaron Furr was arrested in connection with Abbott’s death and charged with death by distribution. Police say he supplied the fentanyl that killed Abbott.

In court Friday, Furr pleaded guilty to the charge. He was sentenced to about five and a half to seven and a half years in prison.

His family sighed with relief when Furr was sentenced.

“I’m a mom. I fought for Marshall his whole life and I’ll always fight for him,” Beth Abernathy said.

Abernathy has fond memories of her son.

“He was an amazing father and amazing son, an amazing friend. And this world is a darker place without him,” she said.

Her husband, Matt Abernathy, said losing Marshall changed everything for him.

“It’s a before and an after — Before Marshall and after Marshall — and life is just different,” he said.

The district attorney’s office sent a statement to Channel 9, saying, “it was an honor to advocate for justice for Marshall Abbott and his family.” But Beth Abernathy said justice won’t stop here.

“Marshall’s case will set a precedent for every family that has to go through this,” she said. “We’ve created a roadmap here in Cabarrus County, and we have proven that you can successfully investigate and prosecute these cases. And we will stand by every fentanyl family in our county and across the state to make sure that every fentanyl dealer is punished to the full extent of the law.”

After the plea hearing, Marshall Abbott’s family and other advocates who came to support them met with the district attorney and assistant district attorney. Goetz was in that meeting while the DA thanked the family for fighting so hard and talked about work they will do in the future to fight for other families.

Read the article and watch the video on the WSOC TV9 website.

Local rapper raising awareness about fentanyl overdose deaths

WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) – Promoter Scott Maitland and rapper “22JAX” are taking action through music and community organizations to raise awareness about fentanyl overdose deaths.

This Sunday, May 19, they are organizing a music video shoot and fundraiser at Legion Stadium from noon to 4 p.m. There will be games and activities for families, food trucks and Foz of Z107.5 FM broadcasting live on-site.

40 percent of the revenue made by the song will be donated to fentanyl awareness nonprofits like Fight4Me and FentVic.

Maitland and 22 Jax visited the WECT studio for an interview on Thursday, and you can watch that full interview at the top of this story.

Read the article and watch the video on the WECT6 website.

High Point man sentenced to 8-11 years for death by distribution in Thomasville

THOMASVILLE, N.C. (WGHP) — A High Point man was sentenced to 8-11 years in prison after pleading guilty to death by distribution, according to the Thomasville Police Department.

On May 28, 2021, officers came to the 300 block of James Avenue and found 35-year-old Jacob Fields dead at the scene.

An autopsy report later revealed that Fields died from a fentanyl overdose.

Investigators identified Larento Valentino Grady Jr., 30, of High Point as the person who supplied the fentanyl to Fields.

On June 13, 2022, the High Point Police Department and Thomasville officers located and arrested Grady at his High Point home without incident.

Grady was indicted by a Davidson County Grand Jury on charges of second-degree murder and death by distribution in July 2022.

On Wednesday, Grady pleaded guilty to the death by distribution charge and was sentenced to serve a minimum of 100 months and a maximum of 132 months in prison.

“The sentence of Larento Grady Jr., to over eight years in prison is a testament to the hard work Thomasville detectives and the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office put into this investigation to ensure our goal was accomplished,” said Detective Lt. Jeff McCrary. “Thomasville detectives continue to work tirelessly alongside the Davidson County District Attorney’s Office and other law enforcement partners to ensure the people dealing drugs in our community are held fully accountable for the death and destruction they selfishly cause.”

Read the original article and watch the video on the MyFox8.com website.

North Carolina man pleads guilty to death by distribution in fentanyl overdose case

HIGH POINT, N.C. —

A man charged in connection with an overdose death in 2021, has pleaded guilty to death by distribution.

Thomasville police said on May 28, 2021, they responded to James Avenue and discovered the body of 35-year-old Jacob Fields. An autopsy report revealed Fields died from a fentanyl overdose.

Grady was sentenced to serve a minimum of 100 months and a maximum of 132 months in prison or more than eight years.

Read the original article and watch the video on the WXII 12 News website.