Homeless fentanyl deaths rising in Santa Clara County
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.

Fentanyl continues to kill unhoused residents in Santa Clara County, and some unsuspecting users may be taking the drug in the form of counterfeit pills.

Seven homeless individuals in San Jose suffered fatal overdoses from methamphetamine laced with fentanyl in the past month, according to the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s Office. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid usually prescribed for terminal pain, has already killed 49 county residents in overdoses this year.

Fentanyl is at least 50 times more potent than morphine, and inconsistent dosing through counterfeit pills leads to accidental overdoses, especially among users with a low tolerance for opioids, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

In Santa Clara County, fatal drug overdoses connected to fentanyl nearly tripled during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, from 27 deaths in 2019 to 88 in 2020.

Fatal overdoses from the drug show no signs of slowing down, according to Brian Buckelew, deputy district attorney for the office’s narcotics unit. He said the eruption of fentanyl use among the unhoused community—as well as young people—can be tied back to the pandemic’s effects.

San Jose police seized more than four ounces of fentanyl powder in early August, and cocaine cut with fentanyl is suspected to have caused a fatal double overdose in Sunnyvale on July 18, according to Buckelew.

Fentanyl is cheaper to obtain than other opioids, and different law enforcement agencies around the county have been seizing fake, 30 milligram oxycodone pills since at least June 2019. Often, drug users seek out the deadly counterfeit pills because of the potency.

“We’ve tested thousands of them. I’ve only had one pill, one single pill, come back positive for oxycodone,” Buckelew told San José Spotlight. “We know for a fact that it was from a common source. They were hot pills, and so people had heard about it and heard, ‘You take one pill or half a pill,’ but they were so hot it was just killing people left and right.”

According to Business Insider, drug dealers and their affiliates use the social media platform Snapchat to distribute fentanyl. Buying dope from the app is especially popular with young adults, who use it to purchases meth and Xanax topped with fentanyl.

According to data KQED obtained from the Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office, in 2020 the average age of a person who suffered a fatal overdose in Santa Clara County was approximately 26 years old. Meanwhile, the average age for Alameda County that same year was 34, and San Francisco was 44.

“I can see people buying on Snapchat because the messages can disappear on (the app),” said Mr. Savaccini, an unhoused man residing in San Jose’s Roosevelt Park.

Requesting to be identified only by his last name, Savaccini spoke with San José Spotlight in his tent along the Coyote Creek River as he and his partner smoked their drug of choice, methamphetamine.

Savaccini said he takes caution when receiving pills from new contacts, and he will examine pills for any unusual dents and unfamiliar markings.

His vigilance stems from his own fentanyl overdose a few years ago when a friend offered what he thought to be cocaine, Savaccini said.

“I started to feel more and more sick as the day went on. My girlfriend at the time looked at me in the car and asked why I was shaking and sweating. I felt like I was shutting down,” he said. “I smoked some weed and crystal so I was able to shake it out of me. (Fentanyl) is trash.”

Buckelew said the most visible symptoms of opioid overdoses are distinct snoring sounds indicating respiratory distress. If an overdose is suspected, he advises individuals to call 911 and emergency medical technicians can administer naloxone, a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

Sherri Terao, director of the Santa Clara County Behavioral Health Services Department, said a brand of naloxone, Narcan, was first distributed in the county in 2016. The department also plans to provide training and Narcan kits to the Office of Supportive Housing to help tackle fentanyl in the homeless community.

“The public health department’s needle exchange program provides fentanyl test strips, as well as Narcan, to their clients,” Terao said. “(The department) is looking into adding fentanyl test strips for distribution in the community soon.”

To combat rising fatal fentanyl overdoses, behavioral health services is launching a community awareness campaign this week to decrease deaths by providing information and resources for users.

Contact Vicente Vera at [email protected] or follow him @vicentejvera on Twitter.

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