Health and Wellness

Lane wrestles with fentanyl epidemic

Medical supplies used at the HIV Alliances syringe exchange pop-ups, where Narcan and Fentanyl test strips are available for public use.

Fentanyl is here, in Lane County. The drug is just one deadly element of a national opioid and drug overdose epidemic. The Springfield Police Department responded to nearly 75 fentanyl-related overdoses between January and April. And Lt. George Crolley with the Operations Support Division estimates there was an equal amount of unreported cases, too. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin, cheaper, easier to manufacture, and more addictive. It also carries a greater risk of overdose, especially for young people with prior tolerance to opioids. “Unfortunately with the introduction of fentanyl into everything – meth, heroin, you name it – overdoses in Lane County are through the roof,” said Scott Denham, former Lane County Creswell Sheriff. “A majority of overdoses in the area have some connection to fentanyl.” Last year, Oregon overdose deaths increased by 41%, compared to a 16% increase nationwide, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Experience in other parts of the U.S. is similar: fentanyl overdose is now the leading cause of death in young adults, as an analysis of national data by advocacy group Families Against Fentanyl shows. Fentanyl masquerades as prescription opioid pills, such as “Dirty-30,” “Blues,” and “Perc-30s,” and contaminates methamphetamine and heroin supplies. The drug is added to heroin to increase its potency or disguised in fake prescription pain pills manufactured in covert labs and circulated through established drug trafficking routes. The DEA reports that it is quickly replacing heroin as the most used illicit opioid. Alexander LaVake, Opioid Overdose Prevention Coordinator with Lane County Health and Human Services, points to fentanyl as a major player in hospitalizations and fatalities. “We also have an emerging problem with fentanyl. It’s making its way into substances that people don’t realize are contaminated,” LaVake said. LaVake also said the crisis is due to drug dependency and addiction. “We think of fentanyl not always as necessarily an overdose but more of a poisoning,” LaVake said. “We have communities of people who are long-term chronic opioid users and have dependency issues. They are consuming fentanyl intentionally because it’s so prolific, it’s so cheap, and it’s so strong.” In Oregon, fentanyl is shuttled up the I-5 corridor, Crolley said. “Essentially, the drugs are coming in from Mexico and being carried by mules up the I-5,” Crolley said. “So trying to tackle something like this is a combination of working with state and federal partners and enforcement agencies.” In Springfield, fentanyl has been found in powder, pill and patch form, and mixed into other drugs, most commonly heroin. Crolley reports that those who overdosed this year ranged in age from their 20s to 50s, lowermiddle-class and struggling to make ends meet. “We still try to make an active effort to be proactive in the areas we see a spike in drug use overdoses and to be a visible presence,” said Crolley. “There are certain areas we visit regularly, so we are clued into which houses often have overdoses and things like that.” A key piece in combating the increase of the Fentanyl crisis in our area is prepping medics and users with safe equipment. Most overdose victims are administered Narcan, also known as Naloxone, a medication that counteracts the effects of opioids and is available as an injection or a nasal spray. Springfield police and area medics carry the medication, which is “critical and life-saving,” Crolley said. “The Narcan stimulates a response in victims that revives their breathing and wakes them up,” Crolley said. “It’s one of the measures we have to take to make sure people are safe.” Crolley said it’s not uncommon to revive the same individual two to three times a month. “We do what we can on the scene to talk to people there, to encourage them to help us help them,” Crolley said. “You know, encouraging them to buy drugs from someone else if they are going to buy any at all.” As part of Lane County’s harm-reduction model, the HIV Alliance promotes “never using alone” and provides fentanyl test strips at their syringe exchange sites. “Don’t do drugs alone and be prepared,” Reggie Hayley, HIV Alliance prevention specialist, said. “Fentanyl is very, very dangerous and it’s contaminating almost all the drugs right now. It’s in everything. I would advise people to assume that it’s in their drugs that they’re getting to have fentanyl test strips and to carry Naloxone.” According to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, fentanyl’s threat extends beyond users to others — including emergency responders — who encounter it. Touching or accidentally inhaling a small amount of the drug can result in its absorption into the body, with adverse health effects such as disorientation, coughing, sedation, respiratory distress or cardiac arrest usually occurring within minutes, the DEA said. Medics and police in the field are gloved up for their safety and are incredibly cautious coming in contact with the substance. In a statement to public safety employees, acting DEA Deputy Administrator Jack Riley warned, “Fentanyl can kill you.” Fentanyl is the leading cause of death for 13-49 year olds, with children as young as 13 now showing up in the gruesome statistics. Fentanyl caused drug overdose deaths to nearly double for U.S. teens, a historic increase even as drug use remained stable during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a new study conducted by UCLA using CDC statistics. The study shows that overdose deaths in teens jumped in 2020 and rose 20% in the first half of 2021, compared to the decade before the pandemic. “People, especially young people, have been consuming pills that weren’t their own for a very long time but that didn’t pose a risk of this sort,” LaVake said. “We have young people using Snapchat and other social media sites to get all kinds of things – Adderall or Xanax – and it turns out those pills are laced with fentanyl, which can cause a fatality or lead to a much higher risk of overdose.” LaVake hopes to educate teens on Oregon’s “good samaritan laws,” which protect callers from being charged with drug possession charges in the event of an overdose or someone needing medical assistance. “Calling 911 should always be the first thing or action you take when something sideways happens, right? But we make a presumption that young people don’t want to call the police necessarily if there’s drugs on the scene or if something goes wrong. But, we want folks to know that that’s absolutely safe to call and very much important,” LaVake said.