Federal agents believe Mexican drug cartels could be linked to a deadly wave of fake Percocet pills moving through Georgia.
The Georgia Department of Public Health said that at least five people are suspected to have died and dozens more have been hospitalized after overdosing from the pills in central Georgia.
Last week, the GBI's crime lab said that initial tests indicated that the fake yellow pills that read "Percocet" are a mixture of two synthetic opioids. One of the drugs is consistent with fentanyl analogue.
The Drug Enforcement Agency said the fake pills are a problem on the national level now entering Georgia. The DEA is investigating possible ties to Mexico.
"There is a concerted effort by these cartels to press fentanyl into pills illicitly and sell them,” said DEA Special Agent Dan Salder.
The DEA is working with local law enforcement in central Georgia to gather details about the recent overdoses in hopes of finding the original source.
"So I don't think we know definitely as of yet, but I would say anytime that you're seeing an explosion of a particular drug, it is coming from these cartels that impact us here in Georgia,” Salder said.
The fifth death in central Georgia possibly triggered by fake Percocet happened Sunday. A 34-year-old man who was found unconscious Friday died two days later.
Georgia Poison Control recently noticed the trend of overdoses all with similar symptoms. Doctors at their offices said the patients’ outcome depends on how quickly they get help.
"These synthetic -- who knows what -- causes people to stop breathing, so the longer that you're without oxygen and supportive care possibly could mean a more severe outcome for the patient,” said Dr. Stephanie Hon of Georgia Poison Control.
Hon said that three suspected overdoses happened over the weekend -- which was down from the previous week.
"Not as heavy as last week, so I don't know if things are kind of quieting down or calming down, but about three of the unconfirmed suspected cases that meet our definition for the cluster," she said.
While the cluster of overdoses possibly caused by fake pills is in central Georgia, the DEA believes it could spread to Atlanta.
"I think a fair assessment would be that it is just a matter of time, Salder said. “Obviously we are close to central and middle Georgia. Most oftentimes, drugs transit through here in Atlanta and go to our smaller counties."
The DEA reports there is a large market for selling fentanyl-laced pills. A single kilo of the drug can sell for anywhere between $4,000 to $7,000, with a million one-milligram pills being made from the kilo.