SLO County fentanyl deaths rising at an "alarming" rate, health officials say

Oct 22, 2019

There has been a dramatic rise in deaths this year from fentanyl in San Luis Obispo County. The news comes from the county’s public health department, which says 10 people have died since May.

“We’re talking about a significant increase here,” Ann McDowell said.

McDowell is an epidemiologist with the San Luis Obispo Public Health Department. She investigates patterns and causes of disease and injury in humans. McDowell said since 2015 there have been one or two cases a year of fentanyl-related deaths in San Lusi Obispo County. That number skyrocketed in the second half of 2019.

“What we’ve seen alarmingly this year is every time fentanyl has been present in a toxicology report, it’s been a fatal level," McDowell said. 

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that, according to the Center ror Disease Control, is 100 times more potent than morphine and can be 30 to 50 times stronger than heroin. McDowell said a tiny amount can cause a person to stop breathing.

McDowell said fentanyl is showing up across the county in all types of drugs outside of opioids, including cocaine.

“We’ve also seen it in the presence of methamphetamines, benzodiazepines, or sedatives,” McDowell said.

McDowell said the health department is working on enhanced education and treatment plans for drug users, but the best way to combat fentanyl deaths currently is a nose spray called naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan. Naloxone can immediately combat the effects of a fentanyl overdose. It’s available at many pharmacies without a prescription.

"Make sure you or your friends have some if you are going to take illegal drugs," McDowell said. "Don’t take them alone."

McDowell said that fentanyl is so strong, someone may need multiple doses of naloxone to reverse an overdose.

There are also fentanyl testing strips that can identify fentanyl -- or the lack of it -- in drugs. These strips are available for purchase at pharmacies and online. They are also available for free through the SLO Bangers Syringe Exchange and Overdose Prevention Program. However, the fentanyl tests strips may not always provide accurate results. The San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department says it’s safest to assume any illicit drug contains fentanyl.