Opioid deaths fueled by fentanyl are on the rise in California — especially in young adults and children. In response, the California Department of Public Health is offering free Naloxone, a medication that can reverse opioid overdoses, to all schools across the state.
On Oct. 6, the Sacramento County Unified School District Board of Education voted to approve plans to stock the life-saving medication across all campuses. The district began distributing Narcan and teaching staff how to use the medication on Oct. 10.
Data from the state shows a roughly 25% increase in overdose deaths from 2020 to 2021. But drug overdoses jumped to 45% during that same period when isolated just to the synthetic opioid fentanyl, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.
The trajectory is staggering when looking back over the past several years. In Sacramento County, there were 57 opioid-related deaths in 2019. In 2021, just two years later, that number rose to 174 deaths, a more than three-fold increase.
Fentanyl is increasingly impacting young adults and children. Fentanyl overdose deaths in kids ages 10 to 19 jumped over 400% statewide between 2018 and 2020, according to the California Department of Public Health.
The United States Drug Enforcement Administration issued a warning about the dangers of rainbow fentanyl, a brightly-colored powder or pill form of the opioid marketed to young people. On Monday, the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Office announced that rainbow fentanyl pills have been recovered within the jurisdiction.
Victoria Flores heads Student Support and Health Services at Sacramento City Unified and joined Insight Host Vicki Gonzalez to share how the district plans to tackle fentanyl education.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
What is naloxone and how does it differ from Narcan?
They're interchangeable words. So naloxone is the type of medication and Narcan is just a brand name. And that's the name of the naloxone that we were able to get for free through the state.
What exactly does it do?
It blocks those opioids from impacting your health system. I mean, I'm not a medical doctor, but, you know, when you are having an overdose, it starts to shut down your breathing, and that's where you end up losing people. And so that Narcan, or naloxone, blocks that from happening and is pretty instantaneous in reviving individuals.
And this is in addition to other resources that you have available on campus for medical emergencies?
Correct. Schools stock a number of these kinds of medications and equipment. We have EpiPens to stop an allergic reaction — oftentimes individuals don't know they have that allergy — automated external defibrillator machines to restart hearts if anyone on our campus goes down, and so now we are adding this naloxone or Narcan right there to that same kit. So our staff know to go right to that source, and that's where all of those lifesaving equipment and medications are held.
This is one of several conversations we've had on Insight regarding fentanyl in the last year and a half. These conversations and really the responses that we're talking about have been growing in recent years, even before the pandemic. Given that your focus is student support and health, what have you been seeing with Sac City students in recent years?
We know the pandemic has just had such a huge impact on our students. And being home, coming back to school, everyone coping with that stress and the trauma, the loss that's happened for so many of us. We knew we would predict that we'd see more depression, anxiety, you know, nervousness about coming back to school. And with that, individuals are really trying to figure out how to cope. Sometimes we do healthy things to cope, and sometimes we do unhealthy things to cope.
This is one of those things that we've sort of seen across the board and just a way that we're really trying to make sure we can save lives. Notice when someone on our campus is struggling with these kinds of issues and link them to support and services.
You really have this front row seat to these challenges, from learning loss to mental health to a lack of connection. You explain that in some cases that may turn a student or a child to prescription pills. How do they have access to this?
It's very easy to access these pills, particularly through social media. So if your child has any kind of social media account or a cell phone, which most of us do, I mean, these are lovely at keeping us connected to our friends and social systems. The downside is that we can also access things that we really shouldn't. We really want to encourage all of our community: only take prescription medication that was prescribed by a doctor and picked up at a pharmacy.
This is where we're seeing kids thinking that they're buying something legit through social media, and it's not, and it does contain fentanyl.
Is it often the case that they may be looking for one kind of prescription and then unknowingly, it's laced with fentanyl?
Correct, yes. When you do the research on those things like Adderall, or you're looking for some kind of anti-anxiety medication, ADHD-type medication, and these are not real pills, but they look exactly the same.
There's lots of good information out there on how they look and how they differ and the different types of, you know, emojis that might be used to market pills.
I know that this is a preventative measure, stocking Narcan and naloxone on all campuses, but have there been instances of drug overdoses on school grounds in recent years?
Not that we are aware of. We did have one incident last year where an individual was taken to the hospital, and we understood later that that treatment was provided. We've had parents come forward, we've learned of other students struggling.
So as we've learned about this, we knew this was an action that we really needed to take. We've seen this nationally, locally here in our state and now in our county. By bringing Narcan to our campuses, we really want to be able to save a life. That is our ultimate goal when our children are in our care, we also want to help educate and bring awareness to our community.
And this was rolled out in your district about a week ago. What has the response been like?
You know, the response I think has been pretty good. We do this every year with EpiPens and automated external defibrillators, and so it's just sort of adding that other layer on. We've been heartened that people are open and welcome to having this on campus, they know that this has been a concern.
Opioid use cuts across our whole community. Many of us personally have some knowledge of someone who's struggled with this. So I think it's something that really hits home for a lot of people.
What types of health education is offered at Sac City Unified to educate students about the dangers of fentanyl and other substances?
We have Red Ribbon Week that talks about drug and tobacco education that's coming up here soon and different kinds of education, you know, throughout our district. But this is a specific type of education we want to bring to all of our campuses across the board, because this is a newer, really dangerous trend in our community. And so that's what we'll be looking at doing this year.
Finally, where do adults, parents, guardians, teachers, staff, mentors, where do they fit into this conversation? What advice do you have to approach this topic to youth?
I think just starting to talk about it, even saying, ‘hey, I heard this program today on public radio talking about rainbow fentanyl, what have you heard?’ And just opening that door with our young people, sharing our concerns. That's really our hope for every adult in our community. Start that conversation.
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