Dewan: Schools respond to increasing fentanyl overdose deaths
A small dose of fentanyl, such as the two milligrams pictured here, is enough to kill a person. Image courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

Last May, I wrote about the need to raise awareness and prevent fentanyl related deaths, especially among our youth. At that time, the first ever National Fentanyl Awareness Day was launched. An important goal of that campaign was to ensure communities knew about fentanyl and the dangers of illegally made counterfeit pills and other drugs laced with fentanyl.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates in the 12-month period ending in October 2021, more than 105,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, with 66%of those deaths related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. Tragically, youth have died of fentanyl poisoning locally and across the United States.

Overdose deaths among youth are on the rise.

California Department of Public Health preliminary data shows California saw 3,857 deaths related to a fentanyl overdose in 2020 compared to 239 in 2016. According to a study released in April, the overdose and poisoning death rate among U.S. adolescents nearly doubled from 2019 to 2020, and increases continued into 2021. Adolescents have not been spared in this overdose epidemic. While overall drug use among adolescents has decreased in the decade before the pandemic, overdose-related deaths for this age group have risen threefold from 2019-2021.

In California, overdose death rates increased for adolescents and young adults, most notably 179% for 15 to 19-year-olds. Research shows a high number of opioid-related fatalities among adolescents and  young adults is not a result of a substance use disorder. It is unintentional, resulting from a combination of experimentation and not knowing that illicit pills have been laced with lethal doses of fentanyl, leading to opioid poisoning.

According to the coroner’s report, data for Santa Clara County shows in 2021, fentanyl accounted for 132 of the 154 deaths, or 85%. Of the 154 fatal opioid-related cases, 31 were youth ages 15 to 24, and 11 cases were youth ages 10 to 19. 2022 is on track to exceed the number of cases from 2021. From Jan. 1 to July 6, 84 opioid deaths have been reported, with 77% of cases related to fentanyl. The groups most impacted by fentanyl are middle and high school-aged children and young adults ages 18 to 25.

Youth find illegal fentanyl and other pills through online sources and can have them delivered to their homes. Youth and others may believe the Adderall, Percoset or Xanax pills they are receiving are prescription medications that have been diverted from the legal supply. The evidence is clear that it is more likely those pills are counterfeit tablets containing fentanyl or similar synthetic opioids.

“Rainbow fentanyl,” a brightly colored version of the super powerful opioid, has been found in the Bay Area and the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) reported that brightly colored fentanyl and fentanyl pills had been seized in 18 states. Fentanyl-laced products in colorful shapes that look like gummy candies have also been found.

“Rainbow fentanyl—fentanyl pills and powder that come in a variety of bright colors, shapes and sizes—is a deliberate effort by drug traffickers to drive addiction amongst kids and young adults,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said in a statement.

Young teenagers have died of fentanyl overdoses in the Bay Area in recent years. The nonprofit Families Against Fentanyl believes fentanyl overdose deaths among American teenagers have tripled over the past two years.

To date, overdose deaths of students on a high school campus have been extremely rare. Schools are considering taking proactive steps to ensure that lifesaving Naloxone (Narcan) is available in the event of an emergency, just as schools have epinephrine (EpiPen) on hand in the event a person experiences a life threatening allergic reaction (anaphylaxis) in the school setting.

The Santa Clara County Office of Education is implementing a Naloxone training and distribution project to support schools in starting their program, in partnership with the Santa Clara Behavioral Health Services and the Santa Clara County Opioid Overdose Prevention Project. Together, naloxone training will be offered to schools and families.

To establish naloxone training and distribution in schools, school district boards must first adopt a policy in alignment with the Education Code.

To learn more about the dangers of fentanyl, how to recognize signs of overdose and what to do in the event of an overdose, visit the CDC fact sheet.

San José Spotlight columnist Mary Ann Dewan is the superintendent of schools for Santa Clara County. She has more than 33 years of experience in the field of education. Her columns appear every third Monday of the month.

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