Alarming spike of fentanyl deaths reported in Santa Clara County
Seven out of 11 months this year, the Santa Clara County medical examiner’s office saw the death of a person under the age of 20. File photo.

    Fentanyl deaths are on the rise in Santa Clara County, striking both young and old.

    As of early this month, Santa Clara County has recorded more fentanyl-related deaths than there were in all of 2019.

    Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner Dr. Michelle Jorden said there are even more deaths under investigation that are likely to be attributed to fentanyl overdoses. Fentanyl is a drug estimated to be about 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine that can come in both pill and powdered form.

    Jorden said the county has seen children as young as 16 and adults as old as 60 fall victim to fentanyl overdoses.

    “The high number of fentanyl deaths this year is extremely troubling and worrisome, especially as we see it happening to both teenagers and adults, particularly young adults,” Jorden said. “Fentanyl can be found in fake pills, powders and other drugs. Even one pill, a fragment of a pill or one snort can be fatal.”

    Bruce Copley, director of Santa Clara County’s Alcohol and Drug Services, gave an example of how powerful the drug is: Last year, a local police officer breathed in fentanyl dust while confiscating the drug. He later required the drug Naloxone (also known as Narcan) to reverse the effects of an overdose.

    “There’s no guarantee how much fentanyl … is laced in these substances,” Copley said. “Fentanyl being so toxic you can die quickly if you’re not given Narcan or if EMTs don’t come and work on you.”

    Law enforcement officers have found both pure, powdered fentanyl but also see it regularly used as an additive in other street drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine.

    “We definitely realized the danger of the drug and look at what happened on the East Coast,” Copley said, referencing the increase of overdose cases there. “We expected that we were going to see a surge.”

    The rise in fentanyl deaths in Santa Clara County started during summer 2019. That’s when the county recorded its first teen death due to the drug.

    According to county health officials, from Jan. 1 to May 8, the Examiner-Coroner’s office identified 19 fentanyl deaths. Ten of those were people who were 16 to 25 years old. Seven out of 11 months this year, the examiner’s office saw the death of a person under the age of 20.

    Copley said stress and the loss of social connections due to COVID-19 and shelter in place orders may have contributed to the rise of deaths. But it’s more likely the trend is part of a years-long rise in the use of fentanyl and other opioids.

    “I track the deaths pretty carefully and closely. I started noticing the trend (to younger deaths) at the end of the last year and it’s why I want to alert the community,” Jorden told San José Spotlight. “Prior to that, what I have been seeing over the past five years is a gradual increase in fentanyl deaths.”

    The Santa Clara Behavioral Health Department offers services to those who are struggling with substance use.

    • Substance use treatment services/Gateway: 1-800-488-9919
    • Mental Health Services: 1-800-704-0900
    • Youth and Young Adult Substance Use Treatment Services: 408-272-6518 (9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Friday)
    • Suicide Crisis Hotline: 1-855-278-4204 (24 hours daily)
    • Crisis Text Line: Text “renew” to 741741 (24 hours daily)

    Health officials advise having Narcan on hand to prevent overdoses. Pharmacists can distribute the drug without a prescription. Free Narcan training and kits can be obtained from the Santa Clara County Opioid Overdose Prevention Project and the county health department.

    Contact Madelyn Reese at [email protected] or follow her @MadelynGReese.

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