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Spike In San Diego County Fentanyl Deaths Leads Officials To Warn Public

Fentanyl pills pictured from a seizure in San Diego, Sept. 14, 2018.

Credit: Office of the United States Attorney

Above: Fentanyl pills pictured from a seizure in San Diego, Sept. 14, 2018.

A spike in fentanyl-related overdose deaths across San Diego County led officials Thursday to warn the public of the drug's deadly potential.

In the first six months of the year, there were 119 confirmed fentanyl- related deaths in San Diego County, while another 84 are believed to be connected to the drug, pending confirmation. Victims have ranged in age from 17 to 66, according to a joint statement issued by state and federal prosecutors, law enforcement and county health officials.

The number of deaths connected to the drug is expected to surpass 2019's countywide total of 152, which officials said likely means a larger quantity of the drug is on the streets, with unsuspecting buyers not realizing what they're purchasing is laced with fentanyl.

"This alarming uptick demonstrates that dealers continue cutting various illegal drugs with fentanyl and now more than ever it's a recipe for death," said San Diego County District Attorney Summer Stephan.

"The public needs to be aware of the danger of using any controlled substance even if packaged like a harmless medicinal pill," she said." Higher overdose numbers tell us there's likely more product on the street in San Diego that may be laced with deadly fentanyl. I'm urging you to share this potentially life-saving message with your loved ones today."

Counterfeit pills account for the majority of overdose deaths, according to San Diego County Medical Examiner Dr. Glenn Wagner.

"Deaths specifically from fentanyl or fentanyl in combination with other drugs in San Diego County have been increasing for years, almost exponentially really, since 2016," Wagner said. "So far this year, pending confirmation, we will have seen more than 200 fentanyl overdose deaths, whereas by this same time last year we had only seen 84.

"Years ago when we saw a death from fentanyl toxicity, it was usually someone misusing an excess of their legally prescribed medicine; but today almost all of the fentanyl deaths that we see result from people that have taken counterfeit pills sold illegally as oxycodone or alprazolam (but containing fentanyl instead of the other drugs)," Wagner said. "These pills are deadly and even just part of one pill kills."

Officials say doses as small as two milligrams can prove fatal for most people.

Dr. Luke Bergmann, the county's director of behavioral health, said social isolation exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic may lead many self- quarantining county residents to turn to substance abuse.

"It is critical in this time of mental health vulnerability and social isolation, with pervasive high rates of anxiety and depression, that people with substance use disorder are aware of the heightened risks of fentanyl and that they get access to harm reduction and care services for addiction," Bergmann said.

He urged residents to seek telehealth treatment that's been made available due to physical distancing requirements.

Officials said anyone who needs help with drug addiction can call the San Diego County Access and Crisis Line at 888-724-7240 or call 2-1-1 San Diego, both of which are available 24 hours a day, seven days per week.

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