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Santa Barbara County’s Project Opioid looks to address rising overdose deaths

Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown announces Project Opioid with community and law enforcement leaders.
Santa Barbara County Sheriff Bill Brown announces Project Opioid with community and law enforcement leaders.

Overdose death rates are rising locally and nationally, as often-deadly opioids like fentanyl become more widespread. Santa Barbara County is looking to address that trend with a program they’re calling Project Opioid.

The CDC declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency in 2017, and it’s gotten worse every year since then. The number of overdose deathsin California alone reached a record of 11,704 last year, and even more are expected in 2022.

Santa Barbara County statistics mirror that trend.

“Last year, 2021, the record number of deaths in our county [was] 133," said Sheriff Bill Brown at a press conference last week.

Brown cited a recent reportfrom the county relying on national, state and local coroner data to analyze Santa Barbara County’s overdose deaths. One area of analysis was race and ethnicity, which Brown said reveals that most opioid-related overdoses in the county were among white residents, but that Hispanic and Latino residents are also seeing a rise in their overdose death rate.

A Narcan nasal spray kit.
Santa Barbara County Emergency Services
A Narcan nasal spray kit.

"57 percent of the people that died in our community were white. That's higher than the state average," Brown said. "36 percent were Hispanic — that is also higher than the state average. 3 percent were Asian, and 2 percent [were] African American."

Dr. Kendall Cortelyou is the Director of Data, Analytics and Strategy with Project Opioid Santa Barbara County. She broke down the county’s overdose deaths by age.

"[Of] the fentanyl deaths that the Sheriff referenced, over 70 percent of those are people 40 and younger. So we're really talking about the fentanyl impacting our youth, the millennials, the Gen Z population. So, this is an entire population that's really being impacted very heavily by fentanyl," Cortelyou said.

According to Cortelyou, fentanyl is often mixed with or even made to look like other drugs, whether they're illegal drugs like cocaine or commonplace prescription medications like Zoloft.

“So in Santa Barbara County we saw the vast majority of people dying with not just one drug in their system, but at least two — fentanyl mixed with methamphetamines, all kinds of different combinations," Cortelyou said. "It’s really important for the community to understand that their drugs may or may not be what they think that they're taking.”

Sheriff Brown said the report and announcement of Project Opioid is the first step in the county’s opioid response, and that they’ll update the public more as it develops. He said some of the concrete actions will include more availability of the overdose reversal drug Naloxone, targeting fentanyl dealers directly and expanding other treatment programs.

“I can assure you we are just getting started," Brown said.

Project Opioid’s report on Santa Barbara County overdose deaths is available here.

Benjamin Purper was News Director of KCBX from May of 2021 to September of 2023. He came from California’s Inland Empire, where he spent three years as a reporter and Morning Edition host at KVCR in San Bernardino. Dozens of his stories have aired on KQED’s California Report, and his work has broadcast on NPR's news magazines, as well. In addition to radio, Ben has worked as a newspaper reporter and freelance writer.
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