Deaths from a synthetic opioid called fentanyl have been on the rise nationally, and last week’s findings from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show this could be the third wave of the nation’s opioid epidemic.
Though the spike in death rates has largely affected the Northeast, the trend is starting to worry health experts in California, who are already taking precautions to reduce overdoses.
“We should be worried,” said Kelly Pfeifer, an opioid policy expert with the nonprofit California Health Care Foundation. “We may experience the type of fentanyl epidemic that the East Coast has experienced. But we have some real advantages in California.”
She’s referring to a shift in the way providers and health officials see opioid addiction, from an illicit transgression to a treatable disease. For the past few years, the California Department of Public Health has been working to make fentanyl test strips available to drug users, and has provided county health departments with Naloxone, an overdose antidote.
The rate of fentanyl-related deaths more than quadrupled in California between 2011 and 2017 according to CDPH, but it’s still far below what the rest of the country is seeing.
Pfeifer said the state’s successful expansion of Medicaid may have led to more people accessing addiction treatment. Individuals are most likely to encounter fentanyl when they’re buying prescription painkillers on the street instead of in a pharmacy.
A rash of fentanyl overdoses and deaths in Sacramento County two years ago was traced to Norco pills laced with the drug. This January, 12 people — mostly in their 20s — were hospitalized after ingesting fentanyl in the same house, and one person died.
“We’re just seeing more and more of these mass outbreaks of fentanyl being a surprise ingredient in something people were taking,” Pfeifer said.
The state health department is also increasing the number of syringe exchange programs and expanding the use of methadone and buprenorphine for weaning patients off of high-risk opioids. In a statement, the department said the “recently documented increase in fentanyl-involved overdose mortality in California validated this approach,” and vowed to continue the work.
“Increasing access to medication assisted treatment and services and decreasing the stigma associated with substance use disorders are critical to our continued success,” they said.
Nationally, fentanyl is killing men more than women, black and Latino people more than whites, and adults age 25 to 34 more than other age groups.