Fentanyl Drives National, Regional, and Local Overdose Crisis

The state of California, Los Angeles County and the city of Santa Monica are all in the midst of an overdose crisis caused in large part by the increasing prevalence of fentanyl in recreational drugs in recent years.

Fentanyl has re-emerged in local headlines following a series of overdoses in Hollywood, but the drug is causing local, regional and statewide deaths at an alarming rate.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that the CDC says is up to 50 times more potent than heroin and 80 to 100 times more potent than morphine. It is a major contributor to fatal and non-fatal overdoses across the country. It is colorless and odorless and can be deadly in quantities as small as a few grains of sand. Many people who overdose on fentanyl unknowingly ingest it in pill or powder form.

According to a recent study of CDC data by online pharmacy company NiceRx, fentanyl overdose deaths have been increasing nationwide for years. Between 2013 and 2016, fentanyl-related deaths increased by 855.45% nationally, making it the fastest growing source of drug-related deaths. Fentanyl was responsible for a total of 32,728 deaths over three years and although this is less than the total number attributed to heroin (48,579), the rate of increase in fentanyl is far beyond any other thing (cocaine 112.75%, methamphetamine 111.71%, heroin 89.6%) that this is the biggest concern of health officials.

According to CDC data, California reported the highest number of overdose deaths in the country between 2013 and 2020 with 39,156. The annual number of deaths doubled during this period, from 4,452 in 2013 to 8,908 in 2020. About 9% of the state’s population is said to have a drug or alcohol addiction.

The numbers are equally shocking in Los Angeles, where the coroner’s office reported that the total number of opioid-related deaths more than tripled between 2016 and 2020. According to the Prescription Drug Abuse Coalition of Los Angeles County, the number of deaths per overdose of fentanyl in the county has increased each year. since routine fentanyl testing began in 2016. In 2020, the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths rose to 1,125, a 982% jump from 2016 and a 144% increase from last year.

According to the county’s Department of Public Health, in 2021, fentanyl was identified in approximately 77% of teen overdose deaths nationwide, and more than 80% of drug overdose deaths in older teens. 15 to 19 in 2015 was unintentional. Overdose deaths related to fentanyl and methamphetamine increased in Los Angeles County even before the pandemic and continue to rise at an alarming rate.

City by city, the trend is the same. Four high school students overdosed on fentanyl-containing pills in Hollywood last week and one of them, a 15-year-old girl, died. The tragic death is just the latest in an ongoing crisis that hit Santa Monica just this year.

Three college students, who were all enrolled in the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District, were taken to hospital from a Santa Monica apartment in May after overdosing on fentanyl-containing drugs. Santa Monica teenager Sammy Berman Chapman died in February 2021 after ingesting a fentanyl-containing pill he purchased from a dealer on Snapchat that he mistakenly believed was Xanax.

In Santa Monica specifically, overdose calls are up 33% in 2021 and, based on this year’s trends, will increase another 10-25%.

While not every overdose is necessarily fentanyl, local officials said their paramedics are easily able to identify an opioid overdose from another class of drug and the wealth of data at all levels supports the conclusion that fentanyl is making rapid inroads locally.

The county’s public health department recently said part of the crisis was due to counterfeit pills contaminated with fentanyl and other life-threatening substances and Fire Chief Danny Alvarez said fentanyl is particularly insidious because it is inserted into other types of drugs, often without the knowledge of the purchaser.

“What worries me the most are the cases where we have individuals who believe they are taking something else when it is actually fentanyl or mixed with fentanyl, which was the case for teenagers. Unfortunately, this scenario happens more frequently,” he said.

As youth overdoses grabbed headlines, Catherine Borman, SMFD’s EMS coordinator, said the problem cut across ages, social classes and income levels.

“It’s not just students or the homeless, it’s everyone,” she said. “It’s a wide range, it’s not just illicit drugs, it’s also prescription drugs that people overdose on. It’s a general problem. »

In an attempt to resolve the crisis, the local fire department participates in a naloxone dispensing program that allows them to drop doses of the life-saving drug for people likely to encounter someone overdosing.

Naloxone is carried by many first responders as a nasal spray. The drug attaches to opioid receptors blocking the effects of other drugs and potentially reversing some overdose symptoms. While paramedics or EMTS can administer it when they arrive on the scene, the new program allows them to leave doses behind. Officials said quitting the drug is not automatic and requires a responsible person to be able to follow instructions, but by providing the ability to use it they hope to prevent deaths.

“We leave two doses of four milligrams. A typical dose is two to four milligrams, so it’s two four milligram doses,” Borman said. “We educate them and leave the medication with them so that if their loved one has an overdose, they can administer it, call 911 and hopefully save their life.”

She said it’s imperative to call 911, even with naloxone, because the effects are temporary and depending on how much of the drug is in the patient’s system, they could still overdose and die when the naloxone wears off without additional medical care.

The program has been running for a few months and officials have handed it over to individuals three times so far. Overall, the statewide project had distributed more than 1,300,000 units of naloxone by July of this year and reversed more than 86,000 opioid overdoses.

County officials recently said naloxone is available to patients who are at increased risk for an opioid overdose or who have family members, including children, who are at risk of accidental ingestion or opioid overdose. . Residents can ask their primary healthcare provider to be prescribed naloxone if it is not automatically co-prescribed for you. Naloxone is also available without a prescription at some pharmacies (https://drugpolicy.org/pharmacy-naloxone-access-california) or community distribution outlets (https://harmreduction.org/resource-center/harm-reduction -near you)

Although naloxone is a post-overdose treatment, Chief Alvarez said he is working on the education side to try to raise as much awareness as possible.

“We want people to start having these conversations and understand that you may think you’re taking one thing when it’s actually something different. From our perspective, this education is critical and raising awareness of the dangers of fentanyl has the potential to save lives,” he said.

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