Fentanyl Crisis: How 10 Northern California counties are addressing the opioid epidemic
Here's a breakdown of the fentanyl crisis in El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Solano, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties.
"It could really happen to anybody": Hear how fentanyl impacted a Yolo County family
"It really could happen to anybody." This is the message Kristy Lee, a mother who lost her 23-year-old son to fentanyl poisoning, wants to share.
When her son Jake died in April 2021, Lee said she knew about opioid abuse, but fentanyl was under the radar at the time.
"Then you start seeing it all over the news and you see movies and you hear reports," Lee said.
Jake thought he was buying Percocet, but Lee said when the chaplain knocked on her door, the coroner determined what he ingested was 100% fentanyl.
Lee said when Jake died he was in a really good place despite struggling with his mental health in the past.
"At the time that he passed, he actually was finishing his English degree at Arizona State University," said Lee. "He was working at a local restaurant. He had just a ton of friends — a great sense of humor, you know? The other adjective for him, though, definitely was 'troubled.' When he was 13, he came to us and said that he was depressed — he was having feelings of depression and anxiety."
Lee said they got him into therapy, he saw psychiatrists and multiple counselors, and he went to various types of rehab when he was self-medicating.
"I felt fortunate to have the support that I had to offer Jake — the things that we could offer him, but clearly lots of needs still need to be met," Lee said.
Since Jake's passing, Lee has gotten involved with the Yolo County District Attorney's Office and Public Health Department to share Jake's story and raise awareness of the dangers of fentanyl.
"You could definitely look at his scenario and think there's no way somebody like him would ever be a victim of fentanyl poisoning, yet he was," said Yolo County District Attorney, Jeff Reisig.
Lee is not the only person who's lost a child or loved one to fentanyl poisoning.
More than 107,600 people died from overdoses in 2021 based on provisional data from the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. That's an increase of nearly 15% from 2020. Overdoses due to opioids increased from about 70,000 in 2020 to about 80,800 in 2021.
Overdoses due to synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl, also increased in 2021 compared to 2020, according to the CDC.
Just two milligrams of fentanyl, which is equal to about 10-15 grains of table salt, is considered a lethal dose, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. Fentanyl is so dangerous because its potency is 50x to 100x stronger than morphine, according to the CDC.
In Northern California, many counties are seeing increases in fentanyl deaths. Here is a breakdown of the trends in El Dorado, Nevada, Placer, Sacramento, Solano, San Joaquin, Stanislaus, Sutter, Yolo and Yuba counties.
El Dorado County:
El Dorado County has seen an increase in fentanyl deaths over the past few years, according to the California Overdose Surveillance Dashboard.
In 2021 there were 19 fentanyl deaths in El Dorado County, an increase from 10 the year before. In 2019, there were only two deaths from fentanyl in the county, according to the dashboard.
The first fentanyl-related death in the county was documented in 2016, according to Carla Hass, the Director of Communications and outreach for El Dorado County. For the first half of 2022, six of seven opioid deaths included fentanyl as a cause of death, according to Hass.
"Many more opioids are prescribed in the U.S. than appear to be required to treat pain, leaving many extra pills available for misuse," said El Dorado County Public Health Officer Dr. Nancy Williams in a press release.
El Dorado County is also working with several community partners to offer prevention, education, and strategies for harm reduction and treatment. As part of that effort, the county did education outreach and information sessions at schools in the county to highlight the danger of illicit pills and unintentional fentanyl poisonings, especially for youth.
Find out more about resources in El Dorado County HERE.
The Nevada County Public Health Department said 2022 data indicates a decrease in overdose deaths involving fentanyl compared to previous years.
The Nevada County Sheriff's Office says there have been nine deaths from fentanyl poisoning so far in 2022 compared to 17 in 2021, based on coroner's reports.
"It is a widely available drug that knows no boundaries. It can be found in highly affluent areas just as often as it could be located in homeless camps," Andrew Trygg, a spokesperson for the sheriff's office, wrote in an email to ABC10.
According to the health department, when the area began seeing an increase in fentanyl deaths in 2020, the department began messaging and community outreach.
"The Nevada County Public Health Department has focused on providing training and distributing Narcan and fentanyl test strips in some non-traditional settings, including local bars and restaurants, local music venues, hotels, and events where drug use may be more likely to occur," the health department wrote.
From Oct. 2021 to Sept. 2022, the public health department trained more than 400 people to administer Narcan.
"We continue to see demand for Narcan training and technical assistance to become Narcan distributors. In addition, we are seeing an increase in reported bystander use of Narcan and have heard anecdotal reports of opioid overdose reversals involving Narcan by those we’ve trained," the health department wrote.
Find more information about fentanyl in Nevada County HERE.
Placer County has seen an increase in fentanyl deaths, which Placer County District Attorney Morgan Gire describes as "exponential."
So far in 2022, there have been 23 fentanyl-related deaths, compared to 33 in 2021, 24 in 2020 and six in 2019.
"The drug dealers aren't trying to kill their customers. They're trying to addict them. They're trying to get them to come back over and over and over again. The problem with fentanyl, especially the illicit fentanyl [is] it's inconsistent. There's no uniformity in the amounts in the way it's made, so small amounts can be fatal and it's sort of a deadly byproduct of their business — is killing customers along the way. They're trying to addict and sell more and more and more. That's going to come at the cost of killing a few customers along the way, and the organizations that are selling it don't care," Gire said.
As of Oct. 2022, there are three pending cases with murder charges filed in fentanyl deaths. Gire said the legal theory behind a murder charge when someone sells fentanyl has been around for a long time.
"It's called an implied malice theory and the theory behind it is if you knowingly do something that you know is dangerous to human life. In this case, selling fentanyl to someone that could kill them. If you knowingly do that, you know what the risks are that someone could die, and you disregard that risk because you don't care and you do it anyway. The law says that is murder," Gire said.
Gire said although the legal theory has been around for a while, it's not common to see those charges for other narcotics, but fentanyl has changed the game.
"Fentanyl is so much more lethal and we're seeing it in so many other places and we're seeing it being used deceptively, being marketed as something that it's not and that changes the legal landscape," Gire said.
Placer County has a One Pill Can Kill campaign and people in the community are sharing the dangers and impact fentanyl can have on families.
The family of Zach Didier, a Whitney High School student who died in Dec. 2020 after taking what he thought was Percocet, has been vocal in the community about spreading awareness about the dangers of fentanyl.
Also, San Francisco Giants pitcher Logan Webb spoke at his alma mater, Rocklin High School, in November to share the story of his cousin Kade Webb who died in Dec. 2021, just days before Logan Webb's wedding.
Find more about fentanyl in Placer County on their website.
Sacramento County has recently seen rainbow fentanyl pills show up in the area, according to the Sacramento County District Attorney's Office.
According to a news release, 99% of oxycodone M30 pills seized and tested in Sacramento County contain fentanyl.
Despite an increase in seizures, Assistant Chief Deputy District Attorney Thien Ho says there has been a decrease in fentanyl deaths so far this year.
"In 2021 we had 116 people die from fentanyl-related deaths — poisoning. That's more than all the gun-related homicides in the county during that same time period. Now this year, that number has gone down to 62 fentanyl-related deaths, but 62 is still 62 too many," Ho said.
Ho said seizures of fentanyl are increasing in the county. As of May 18, 2022 — less than halfway through the year, the county was already at 113,600 fentanyl pills along with powders, solids and other forms. This is compared to 165,660 in 2021, according to the district attorney's crime lab, which tests all narcotics seized by local law enforcement agencies in the county.
Sacramento County has a public awareness campaign that includes going into schools and educating students and parents about the danger of fentanyl. The Sacramento City Unified School District has Narcan available at all of its school campuses as of October.
Find more information about fentanyl in Sacramento County HERE.
San Joaquin County:
San Joaquin County has seen a sharp increase in fentanyl deaths in the past few years.
Daniel Kim, the Health Promotion Programs Coordinator and Co-Facilitator for the San Joaquin County Opioid Safety Coalition, wrote in an email to ABC10 that deaths from prescription opioids have been trending down since 2010.
"San Joaquin County's opioid overdose rates have fluctuated up and down over the same years but overall showed a similar downward trend until 2019. However, fentanyl has been the biggest driver of overall opioid overdose death rates that we’re seeing now," according to Kim.
Kim told ABC10 that while the rest of California saw fentanyl-related death rates rise in 2016-2017, San Joaquin County started seeing rates rise in 2019.
San Joaquin has an opioid safety coalition, which was initially created to address prescription opioids contributing to overdoses from 2010-2018. However, the coalition has since shifted its focus to fentanyl and illicit opioids, according to Kim.
“Fentanyl is one of the most critical issues impacting our community,” said District Attorney Tori Verber Salazar in a statement. “The San Joaquin County District Attorney’s Office is committed to combatting the fentanyl crisis with our fellow law enforcement agencies through education, awareness, prevention, and prosecution of those who distribute this lethal opioid in our County.”
More than half of the deaths related to fentanyl in the county since 2019 have been between 14 to 35-years-old, according to a statement from San Joaquin Public Health Officer Dr. Maggie Park.
The county has been working to inform the public about the risk of fentanyl. To address the dangers of fentanyl, the county is working to increase the availability of Narcan, which is used to reverse the effects of opioids. Looking to the future, the coalition will continue working with healthcare providers to encourage people with substance abuse issues to get treatment.
Find more information about fentanyl in San Joaquin County HERE.
Illicit fentanyl has had a significant impact on Solano County. According to Robin Cox, the Senior Health Services Program Manager for Solano County, opioid-related deaths have quadrupled in the county in the past four years.
This is especially impacting young people. Cox wrote in an email to ABC10 that fentanyl deaths among 13 to 24-year-olds have increased by 491% in the past five years.
"Some of what we are seeing is that a student may think that they want to try an Adderall or Oxy, but they have no idea that it is laced with a potentially fatal amount of fentanyl, and the drug dealer doesn’t know how much fentanyl it contains either, and a student’s first experiment taking what they think is someone’s leftover Oxy or Adderall may be the last thing that they do. Their first experiment may be their last," Cox wrote.
Solano County is already doing community outreach and education to inform people about the dangers of taking illicit drugs. Cox said they are working with the office of education and sheriff's office on projects with schools to educate students. A part of that includes teaching people how to use Narcan if they see someone experiencing an overdose, how to find mental health services, and more.
Find more information about fentanyl in Solano County HERE.
In Stanislaus County, overdose and poisoning deaths totaled 176 in 2021.
According to the county, they're seeing about three to four residents dying per week and fentanyl is the main contributor to overdose and poisoning deaths.
The county said it is on pace to exceed the record number of deaths in 2021 based on preliminary data for 2022. According to Tony Vartan, the Director of Behavioral Health Services for Stanislaus County, preliminary data from the Stanislaus County Coroner’s Office reflects 140 overdose and poisoning deaths for 2022. This is through Dec. 8 and about 71% of the 140 deaths were fentanyl-related.
"The drug landscape has changed and experimentation is no longer an option for our youth. It’s never too early to have the conversation about the impacts of substance misuse and abuse. Speak to your children early and often," Vartan wrote in an email to ABC10.
The Stanislaus County Opioid Safety Coalition is working to prevent and reduce prescription drug and heroin abuse, according to its website. The coalition is working with community stakeholders and partners to increase community education, expand access to treatment services in schools and much more.
Vartan said fentanyl is found in illicit drugs but also in counterfeit medications made to look like the real thing such as Xanax, Oxy, Percocet and Adderall.
"This is the reason we use the term 'overdoses and poisonings' because many of the recent cases involve people taking what they thought was just a ‘regular’ painkiller but turned out to have fentanyl, which is 50-100x more potent, or even more potent forms (eg. ‘carfentanyl,’ which is 100x more potent than fentanyl). The folks who die from fentanyl poisoning do not intend to overdose," Vartan said.
The Stanislaus County Opioid Safety Coalition meets on the second Thursday of each month. Find more about the coalition HERE and find out more about fentanyl in Stanislaus County HERE.
Sutter County is also seeing an increase in fentanyl-related deaths over the past few years, according to the California Overdose Surveillance Dashboard.
According to Charles Smith, a spokesperson for Sutter County, the district attorney and fire chief participated in a series of assemblies at high schools to discuss the danger of fentanyl.
"We’re aware of the growing issues with fentanyl," Smith wrote in an email to ABC10.
Smith also said guidelines have been given to first responders who are "increasingly likely to encounter fentanyl."
Recently, these fentanyl-related overdoses have been linked to illicit fentanyl compared to prescribed fentanyl. According to Sutter County's website, powdered fentanyl can be mixed with other drugs such as heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine.
"Fentanyl mixed with any drug increases the likelihood of a fatal overdose," according to Sutter County's website.
Liquid fentanyl can be mixed into nasal sprays or eye drops, according to the county.
Find more information about fentanyl in Sutter County HERE.
Yolo County District Attorney Jeff Reisig said there has been a sharp increase in fentanyl poisonings in the country and in Yolo County over the last several years. Most of the people dying in Yolo County are in their mid-20s to mid-30s, Reisig said.
"Davis has been particularly vulnerable to this. Think about it. It's not surprising they tend to have a younger population. They have the college, and so we've seen a lot of fentanyl moving through Davis and the college population there," Reisig said.
Reisig said there has been a big increase in fentanyl seizures, especially along the freeways in the county.
Yolo County has done an "aggressive outreach" and public education program to make sure the public knows about the danger and risk, according to Reisig.
Reisig said Yolo County was one of the first counties in the state to announce a tough policy against dealers. This includes an initial warning for dealers selling fentanyl but also drugs that contain fentanyl. Then, if someone sells drugs again and someone dies of a fentanyl overdose, the person could be charged with murder.
"We are aggressively investigating every fentanyl death, and if we're able to connect the dots to a dealer that had awareness or a prior conviction, we're going to charge a homicide," Reisig said.
Reisig said there have not yet been murder charges filed for a fentanyl death in Yolo County.
"I don't think it'll be a challenge at all to get 12 jurors from Yolo County to convict somebody of a homicide if they're in that situation where somebody dies from taking their product," Reisig said.
Find more information about fentanyl in Yolo County HERE.
In Yuba County, fentanyl-related deaths have increased in previous years, a trend that is up again this year, according to Yuba County Sheriff Wendell Anderson.
"Fentanyl is widespread throughout our community and the state as a whole. It is readily available, cheap and is commonly found in many pills and in illicit drugs. The potency of the drug is what makes it so very dangerous and can end a life with the smallest amount," Anderson wrote in an email to ABC10.
First responders in Yuba County have Narcan while on duty along with correctional officers, according to Anderson.
In terms of enforcement, Anderson said it is difficult to make a case against someone for a murder charge in a fentanyl death. He told ABC10 that someone has been arrested and charged with murder for providing fentanyl that resulted in a death in Yuba County. The person is being held at the Yuba County Jail and the case is ongoing.
"While we continue to have a regional task force with our neighboring law enforcement departments, the struggle continues. The loss of the CA Bureau of Narcotics Enforcement lowered accountability and the endless legislation that hinders our ability to combat the drugs are attributing to the crisis," Anderson wrote.
Find more information on fentanyl in Yuba County HERE.
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