County Public Health partners with schools
Lane County Public Health is taking a new approach to combat the deadly rise of fentanyl — an awareness campaign aimed at “meeting people where they are at.”
“Ultimately, we hope the outcome of this campaign is saved lives,” said Alexander LaVake, community health analyst and fentanyl awareness campaign coordinator for Lane County Public Health. “To that end, we will be providing youth, families and community members with the tools to stay safe, respond to an overdose and provide strategies to lower the risk of overdose.”
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. An increase in the use and supply of fentanyl across the county has resulted in more 911 calls, emergency room visits and deaths, officials said.
The goal of the campaign is to counteract the effects of fentanyl through risk awareness and education, specifically for teens and their families.
“There is some data out there that would suggest that teen drug use is down over the last decade,” LaVake said. “The problem is, fentanyl in the supply has created the most fatalities amongst young people ever. Drugs were never this dangerous.”
The campaign has already partnered with a few school districts in Lane County and hopes to expand the reach of the toolkit as well as bring fentanyl test strips and Narcan to nurses’ offices.
“My goal with schools was to honor the issues of capacity that they’re in,” he said. “And also to help with any politicizing of this that may come up. We’re public health and we’re here to provide support for you.”
Springfield School District and other districts in the county have approved Narcan policies internally “the same way they would have epi pens for allergic reactions,” LaVake said.
“We haven’t seen anything unfortunate in our county, but we have seen in other states unfortunate accidents in school bathrooms and other school settings due to pill consumption, and we want everyone to be safe,” LaVake said.
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.”
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.
LaVake says that rather than following the messaging of the Reagan-era, “Just say no” campaigns, LCPH hopes to work with the “reality of experimentation and recreation.”
“The conversation is about the reality of drug use, as it exists, experimentation and recreation,” LaVake said. “Which is why we are promoting a harm reduction model, connecting people to safe-use messaging and things like Narcan.”
The awareness campaign includes education on Narcan, information on the signs and symptoms of an overdose, the importance of using test strips and how to respond and other community resources, officials said. 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.
Still, Oregon law currently makes the distribution of testing equipment for analyzing the strength of controlled substances, like fentanyl testing strips, illegal.
“That is just an example of state law being slow to catch up,” LaVake said. “As we speak, bills are moving forward decriminalizing drug paraphernalia. For most organizations they’re still considered drug paraphernalia, but for people operating service programs, they are exempt from that.”
LaVake also 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.
Learn more about the campaign at fentanylaware.com