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'Alarming increase': Fentanyl passes meth as cause of OD deaths in Pima County

A "sustained increase" in the number of overdose deaths related to fentanyl — which are numbering more than a decreasing number of fatal meth ODs — has Pima County officials issuing an alert to healthcare providers, calling the rise "alarming."

So far this year, 32 residents of the county have died from fentanyl overdoses, despite more widespread use of Narcan by law enforcement. In 2020, fatal ODs from the opioid have numbered more than those from methamphetamine for the first time, officials said.

Deaths from fentanyl have been increasing since early 2019, and, if this trend continues, Pima County Health Department officials project more than 100 deaths from the drug here this year.

"We track overdose deaths, and have seen an alarming rise in deaths from fentanyl, with more people in their 20s dying from overdose," said Mark Person, manager of the Health Department's Community Mental Health and Addiction Program. "If this trend increases, we tragically may see almost 50 deaths in that age group by the end of the year, which would be an 85 percent increase."

The county issued an alert to healthcare providers this week because of the increase.

Fentanyl was linked to 32 overdose deaths in the county from January through the end of March. Meth caused 25 deaths so far this year, down from more than 40 fatal ODs in the third quarter of last year. A dozen people died from both heroin and cocaine so far this year.

Three of the fentanyl deaths in the first quarter of this year were people aged 19 or younger; one was an infant, officials said. Half of those who died from fentanyl so far in 2020 have been aged 27 or younger.

Fentanyl is extremely potent, frequently leading to accidental overdose when taken by itself or with other drugs or alcohol. The opioid is often mixed with other narcotics, like heroin, cocaine, or meth, leading to accidental ingestion and sometimes overdose.

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The Health Department suggests:

  • Storing all medications in a locked cabinet to prevent them from being taken or accidentally ingested by another adult or child they're not intended for.
  • Properly disposing of expired or unused medication. This can help reduce the risk of prescription drug misuse or overdose, and minimizes the introduction of pollutants into our environment. Safe disposal locations and events can be found at pima.gov/disposamed.
  • People who struggle with substance use disorders or use drugs recreationally should use fentanyl test strips before using any substance. Check with your local health care provider, pharmacy, or health plan for more information about how to obtain test strips in your area.
  • Those who are or may be close to people at high risk for substance misuse should consider having Naloxone, (also called Narcan) with them or storing this drug at home in case of an overdose emergency. Naloxone can potentially reverse an opioid overdose. The Health Department works with community partners to distribute Narcan to first responders and health providers who frequently encounter high-risk populations. High-risk people, and their friends and family, can obtain naloxone by calling 520-724-7973, talking to their primary care provider, or through most pharmacies.
  • Remembering that mental health and substance use are of particular importance during times of heightened stress and anxiety. Anybody struggling with substance use, difficulty coping with increased stress, or having feelings of hopelessness can call 520-622-6000 or 1-866-495-6795, text 838255, or visit pimahelpline.org. If you or someone you know is having thoughts of self-harm or suicide you can also contact the national suicide prevention lifeline at 1-800-273-825. In the event that health and safety are in immediate jeopardy, call 911 immediately.
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