Deaths from fentanyl, a powerful opioid drug, are drastically on the rise in Santa Clara County this year, and public health officials think stress and anxiety resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic might be contributing to the uptick.
From Jan. 1 to May 8, at least 19 fentanyl overdose deaths occurred here, according to the Santa Clara County Public Health Department. During the same period in 2019, seven people died of the opioid, which is many times more powerful than heroin. In 2019, there were 29 fentanyl deaths reported throughout the year.
This year’s casualties ranged in age from 16 to 56, with 10 of the fatalities between the ages of 16 and 25, according to health officials.
Health officials cautioned that many of the deaths are related to fake pills made to resemble legitimate medications, but in fact have been laced with lethal doses of fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a powerful pain management narcotic that is 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Exposure to even small amounts of fentanyl can cause overdose and death, according to the county health department.
While pharmaceutical-grade fentanyl is approved for treating severe pain, the drug is also used in fake pills and in powder form. Many people take these pills thinking they are taking oxycodone, unaware that they may contain lethal doses of fentanyl, according to county staff. Just one pill, a fragment of a pill or one snort can be fatal.
Several of the fentanyl deaths this year have been linked to fake pills, according to authorities. Specifically, the fake pills in these incidents are stamped with the letter “M” and the number “30,” to resemble 30mg oxycodone doses.
County public health said “most pills” found on the streets are fake. Fentanyl is also available in a powder form, which is as dangerous and deadly, authorities said. County law enforcement agencies have seized pure powdered fentanyl and routinely find fentanyl as an additive in other street drugs such as methamphetamine and cocaine.
“No one should take a pill that was not obtained directly from a pharmacy,” reads a press release from the county health department. “Pills given by a friend or bought from others also should not be taken. Taking any ‘off the street’ pills at home when alone is dangerous. Taking fake pills in any circumstance could have deadly consequences.”
Furthermore, the DA’s office and law enforcement agencies throughout the county have found that fake pills containing fentanyl “may be in wide circulation.”
The county has formed a collaborative rapid response team to investigate recent deaths and alert healthcare providers, schools, parents, young adults, children, community based organizations and residents about the concern. The rapid response team consists of representatives of Behavioral Health Services, the DA’s office, Health and Hospital Systems, Medical Examiner and Public Health.
The public health department noted that the COVID-19 pandemic, accompanied by social distancing and other stressors, “may be contributing to the rise in fentanyl related deaths and substance use.” The county offers services for people struggling with stress and substance use issues, including fentanyl. Specifically, the following resources:
- Substance use treatment services/Gateway: 800.488.9919
- Mental health services: 800.704.0900
- Youth and young adult substance use treatment services: 408.272.6518
(8am to 5pm Monday through Friday)
- 24/7 suicide crisis hotline: 855.278.4204
- 24/7 crisis text line: text “renew” to 741741
Naloxone (also known by its brand name, Narcan) can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose, health officials added. Pharmacists are permitted to prescribe Naloxone without a prescription. Contact a local pharmacy to confirm that they have Naloxone available. Free Narcan, training and kits can be obtained from the Santa Clara County Opioid Overdose Prevention Project (sccgov.org/sccoopp) and the County of Santa Clara Public Health Department (sccnex.org).