Orange County’s number of fentanyl deaths is skyrocketing each year – Orange County Register


The number of fentanyl-related deaths in Orange County more than doubled in 2020, with Orange County coroner’s officials attributing 432 deaths to the potent opiate then compared to 165 fatal overdoses the year before.

Just six years ago, there were 16 such deaths, with each annual figure since then skyrocketing.

Those killed by fentanyl are the young to the old from across Orange County, said Sgt. Todd Hylton, a Sheriff’s Department spokesman.

The death toll represents “just the tip of the iceberg” in the fentanyl crisis, said Dr. Bharath Chakravarthy, vice chairman of research for UC Irvine School of Medicine’s Emergency Medicine Department.

“People are probably overdosing and surviving without anyone even knowing it,”  Chakravarthy said. “But many of them do come to the emergency department … blue, barely breathing and with pinpoint pupils.”

It’s not immediately clear why the county’s number keeps rising, but the pandemic may have played a role in last year’s spike. Some experts theorized that a number of those with difficulty accessing health care during the pandemic might have turned to drugs or alcohol instead, Chakravarthy said.

The jump in deaths does coincide with a rise in the volume of fentanyl showing up on the street.

Hundreds of blue pills that tested positive for fentanyl were strapped beneath the clothing of a man stopped by U.S. Customs and Border Protection Agents based in the San Diego area on Tuesday May 11, 2021. (Photo courtesy of U.S. Customs and Border Protection)

A growing amount of the drug is making its way into California through the state’s border with Tijuana, said Agent Jacob MacIsaac, a spokesman for U.S. Customs and Border Protection. The volume of fentanyl seized by agents based in San Diego jumped from 108 pounds in 2019 to 384 pounds last year.

As little as two milligrams of the synthetic drug can lead to a fatal dose, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. When used properly, it is a prescription drug “typically used to treat patients with severe pain or to manage pain after surgery,” according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

But it is cheap to produce, and its extreme potency allows dealers to maximize profits by lacing it into different narcotics. Fentanyl is often disguised as oxycodone and other opiates.

“One might think that they’re taking Vicodin or Percocet, or heroin for that matter, and wind up overdosing on something way more potent,” Chakravarthy said. “So if you think you’re taking x amount of heroin, and it’s actually that amount of fentanyl, that could mean a matter of life or death.”

Forensic scientist Terry Baisz shows pills, masking as other pharmaceutical drugs but they are actually fentanyl, at the Orange County Sheriff’s Department crime lab in 2015. (Photo by MICHAEL GOULDING, ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER/SCNG)

Added Hylton, the Orange County sheriff’s sergeant, about the drug when made illegally: “This is being manufactured by people who are not scientists.”

More of the drug is apparently turning up in Orange County in the form of counterfeit pills, Hylton said.

In 2020, the Sheriff’s Department confiscated more than 64 pounds of powdered fentanyl in addition to 1,761 pills. This year, deputies have already seized 87 pounds of raw fentanyl and more than 57,000 pills.

Taking fentanyl off of the street strikes at the “supply side” of the opioid crisis, but is only one of numerous efforts needed to combat it, sheriff’s Sgt. Brian Gunsolley said. Warning people before they encounter the drug, especially the youth via workshops and outreach, is a key part of the department’s strategy.

For people who survive abusing fentanyl or other narcotics, the goal becomes finding a path to some form of treatment, Chakravarthy said.

“Having people come into the emergency room and then, afterward, just turning them around and saying, ‘OK, your life’s saved, now go back,’ well, that’s a disaster,” Chakravarthy said. “Because it’s likely going to happen again.”

Deaths from fentanyl

2016: 37

2017: 57

2018: 134

2019: 165

2020: 432

The number of deaths linked to fentanyl in Orange County skyrocketed over the past few years, according to data from the Orange County Coroner’s Office. (Orange County Register)



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