By Bernie Woodall
(Reuters) - Dozens of overdoses and four deaths in central and southern parts of Georgia appear to be linked to potentially lethal substances in opioid painkillers sold on the street, state public health and law enforcement officials said on Tuesday.
In the past 48 hours, emergency responders have found patients who were unconscious or had stopped breathing, and many had to be placed on ventilators, the Georgia Department of Public Health said in a statement.
"Patients reportedly purchased yellow pills alleged to be Percocet, an opioid pain medication," said the health department, which is investigating with the help of state and federal agencies.
Percocet is a brand-name drug that contains the opioid painkiller oxycodone and the analgesic pain reliever acetaminophen.
The health department said the drugs involved in the overdoses are likely not legitimate prescription drugs. Testing is being done to identify the pills and the ingredients.
"There are presumptively now four deaths connected to this, but this has not been confirmed with lab testing," said Nelly Miles, spokeswoman for the Georgia Bureau of Investigation.
The spate of overdoses occurred in middle and southern Georgia, including the area in and near Macon, Warner Robins, Centerville, Perry and Albany, the health department said. But the distribution of the potentially lethal pills may be more widely spread, it said.
"Massive doses" of the emergency opioid-overdose treatment naloxone have been used to revive people who ingested the drugs, according to the state.
The abuse of opioids - a class of drugs that includes heroin and prescription painkillers - has assumed epidemic proportions in the United States.
The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which is based in Atlanta, has estimated that 91 Americans die every day from opioid overdoses.
(Reporting by Bernie Woodall; Editing by Colleen Jenkins, Leslie Adler and Jonathan Oatis)