Orange County is in the middle of a second deadly crisis in 2021. This time it is opioids, and especially the synthetic opioid fentanyl. 668 people died by overdose in 2020. 432 of them died with large amounts of fentanyl in their systems. This is a 262% increase from 2019 when 294 died. They came from all backgrounds; Rich or poor, from the beaches in Newport or Huntington to the suburbs of South County to Anaheim and Santa Ana. It affects all of us.
93,000 individuals in America lost their lives by overdose in 2020, a 29% increase from 2019. It is a national crisis. And Orange County is being hit with a tsunami. Much of the increase is the result of fentanyl being mixed into everything from counterfeit prescription drugs to opioids to cocaine, methamphetamine and even cannabis.
According to clinicians, there is a romance to fentanyl. The highs are higher. It is 50 times more powerful than heroin. Some individuals with addiction purposely seek it out. But the risk of overdose is much higher as well. Fentanyl is a stone cold killer.
It is easier for the cartels to smuggle and has much higher profit margins with much lower risk. It is not going to go away.
But there is hope for individuals. Naloxone (also known under the brand name Narcan) has been proven as an effective antidote against all opioids. Tens of thousands of doses have already been distributed in our community and most of our first responders now carry it with them at all times. It is saving Orange County lives daily. It is the most effective first aid for those with addiction.
But as the fentanyl has insidiously infiltrated our citizen’s lives this life saving drug needs much wider distribution. It needs to be in those places where overdoses occur. In the treatment community, on the streets, in sober living homes, where older adults may accidentally overdose from prescription opioids; anywhere someone is using. Our homeless population is at the highest risk. There are points of contact; county outreach workers and again, law enforcement. We can do a lot more.
How much have we spent on de-fibrillators or on first aid kits? Drugs like Naloxone need to be considered as first aid. As with heart attacks, overdoses are life and death emergencies.
There has been a systemic failure as well. The Covid Crisis has forced individuals to isolate. Most daily person to person contact and outreach was halted by government agencies with the exception of law enforcement and emergency services. Essential businesses were open, but we got behind the curve. As a result, antidote distribution efforts were halted as well. We have to get back on track and more so, to step up distribution.
But we need a plan. Agencies and stakeholders need to work together. We need to fund it and we need to focus on it. There are already state grants available to pay much of the cost. Our Behavioral Health Services Agency has millions of dollars in unspent funds.
For too long there has been a lack of cooperation and collaboration between all stakeholders. There has been a lack of leadership. We need to get on the same page and we need to do it now. People are dying in the streets or in homes or the emergency rooms every day.
The first step is the preservation of life. Then we can work together on next steps.
Matt Holzmann lives in Anaheim, CA
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