As Sacramento County’s opiate overdose crisis spread to 28 people, including six deaths, federal drug enforcement officials called it “a serious health threat” that marks Northern California’s first major wave of illegal sales of fentanyl, a powerful painkiller.
“Obviously we are aware of the situation in Sacramento. We are looking into it, and we are taking it very seriously,” said John Martin, a special agent in charge of the San Francisco office of the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.
Sacramento County public health officials Tuesday upped the number of confirmed cases from 20 to 28, and the number of deaths grew from five to six. All are believed to be related to street sales of tablets or capsules that contain fentanyl, a fast-acting, powerful synthetic painkiller that’s causing an epidemic of deaths nationwide.
The Sacramento cases, which were first reported on March 25, are the first major wave of Northern California overdoses and deaths related to fentanyl, Martin said.
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“We have seen a big epidemic on the East Coast, but to my knowledge this is new to us,” he said. “We hoped it would never come here. But it was only a matter of time before it came this way.
“This is a big priority for the DEA nationwide. It is a serious health threat.”
Illicitly manufactured fentanyl typically takes the form of a powder that can be pressed into tablets of other drugs or sold as other narcotics such as heroin or OxyContin, Martin said. Mexican drug cartels are purchasing pure fentanyl from China and manufacturing it in illicit laboratories, he said.
The drugs that led to the Sacramento overdoses “could be from one bad batch, we just don’t know,” he said. “People need to understand the risks of purchasing street drugs.”
In Sacramento County, individuals have been brought to four hospitals since March 24: UC Davis Medical Center (which has treated 15 patients); Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, south Sacramento; Mercy Hospital of Folsom; and Methodist Hospital, Sacramento. Others were taken directly to the coroner’s office by firefighters or paramedics.
Some of the 28 patients have been treated with multiple doses of naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an overdose. Some patients have since been released, said county public health officials, who offered no further details.
“It’s really important that people do not take prescription pills that were not prescribed for them. People really need to be careful,” said Laura McCasland, spokeswoman for Sacramento County Public Health Officer Olivia Kasirye.
Dr. Randall Stenson, an addiction specialist and medical director of C.O.R.E., a Sacramento opiate recovery clinic, said a fentanyl overdose can be fatal within minutes.
“If an individual is not careful about how much they are ingesting, it can easily overwhelm the breathing center” of the brain, he said. “It’s very quick. In some cases if you inject too much you could stop breathing with the needle still in your arm.”
Those who overdosed in Sacramento may have been unaware that they were taking fentanyl. According to Sacramento County public health officials, some patients thought they were purchasing tablets of Norco, another painkiller. But toxicologists don’t believe Norco tablets were involved in the current wave of overdoses. Instead, it’s believed that Norco look-alike tablets containing fentanyl were sold on the street.
The Sacramento surge is alarming, Stenson said. People seeking street drugs should know, he said, “that there is absolutely no quality of control. You have no idea what you are putting into your body.”
Also on Tuesday, President Barack Obama announced new measures to combat opiate addiction, including additional funding for treatment centers and expanded use of anti-addiction drugs by doctors. The new efforts are in addition to a $1.1 billion campaign launched last month to halt the U.S. epidemic of opiate overdoses.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 78 Americans die every day from opiate overdoses, fueled by an increase in the use of prescription painkillers.
In California, deaths involving opioid prescription medications have increased 16.5 percent since 2006, reaching a new high of about 4,500 drug overdoses in 2014, according to The Sacramento Bee’s Data Tracker. In 2014, drug overdoses killed more than 47,000 Americans, the highest annual number of overdoses on record, according to the CDC.