Santa Clara County races to stop fentanyl overdoses
Blessing Davis, who was previously homeless, hands Narcan to unhoused resident Jasmine Velasquez. Photo by Jana Kadah.

    For one Santa Clara County supervisor, the fight against fentanyl addiction is personal.

    About a year ago, Supervisor Otto Lee lost a 29-year-old cousin to an overdose. Lee describes him as being bright and energetic.

    “It’s just very sad,” he told San José Spotlight. “It was truly an awakening moment for me.”

    Fentanyl-related deaths in Santa Clara County jumped from 11 in 2018 to 132 in 2021, according to the county data. As of September, 97 people have died from fentanyl overdoses, making this year on track for another record high. San Jose accounted for the majority of fentanyl-related deaths in the county during the past two years: 100 out of 132 in 2021 and 61 out of 97 to date in 2022.

    Lee wonders if having Narcan available could have saved his cousin’s life. Also known as Naloxone, Narcan can restore normal breathing to a person overdosing from opioids.

    “There is so much more we can do for families and the community,” he said. “I’m extremely passionate about it, especially because of that incident… It’s so powerful and dangerous. It’s so important we devote our resources to help.”

    Lee said fentanyl has flooded the community—from homeless camps to high schools—as the drug is potent and cheap to make. He said a small dosage can get somebody very high or kill them.

    The rising number of fentanyl overdoses in Santa Clara County has motivated the Board of Supervisors to step up prevention measures.

    In January, Supervisors Susan Ellenberg and Lee declared a public health crisis due to mental illness and substance use disorders and charged the county with creating a plan to address treatment needs. At an Oct. 18 board meeting, supervisors voted unanimously to increase the county’s behavioral health services department budget by $4.6 million for mental health and substance use programs.

    Supervisor Cindy Chavez asked that a formal request be made to the state for Narcan kits. She wants research on where nasal spray Narcan kits can be purchased.

    “We want to make sure we’re making those resources available to folks in our community,” Chavez said.

    The county plans to distribute free Narcan kits through vending machines placed at jails, court buildings, high schools, colleges, hospitals, bars and restaurants. The first three kiosks will be placed at Santa Clara County Main Jail, Elmwood Correctional Facility and Juvenile Hall. The details of how this will work have yet to be determined. The county also wants to make fentanyl test strips more available communitywide. Fentanyl test strips can detect traces of it in other drugs.

    Ellenberg said adding vending machines for Narcan and fentanyl test strips at jails is a small, but important step toward increasing access to overdose prevention tools. She wants more of these “lifesaving tools” accessible in communities where people use drugs.

    Santa Clara County has budgeted $130,000 to $140,000 to provide Narcan kits in all the high schools, Lee said.

    “The dollar amount is frankly minimal compared to the benefits,” Lee said. “Every life we save is priceless… It could be our neighbor’s kids or your own kids… I’m very, very concerned.”

    The county’s behavioral health services partners with the public health department to distribute fentanyl test strips and Narcan kits to homeless residents. About 2,000 overdose kits have been distributed during the past two years. Lee said Santa Clara County wants to provide an inpatient detox facility for the unhoused, as well as supportive housing and job training.

    In addition to hospitals offering medical detox beds for those with complex medical conditions, Pathways, a community-based organization, offers inpatient treatment and provides beds to patients in recovery from substance use. The county contracted 15 beds with the organization, but upon touring the facility last month, Lee was shocked to see a significant number of empty beds due to staffing shortages. The board approved Pathways’ hiring of three more workers and is looking for additional providers.

    Ellenberg said more detox beds are urgently needed.

    “People are dying by suicide (from) unintentional overdoses,” she said. “These drugs are dangerous. What work could be more important than saving lives?”

    Contact Lorraine Gabbert at [email protected].

    Reporter Tran Nguyen contributed to this report. 

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