Health & Medicine

Sacramento fentanyl-linked overdose deaths rise to 10; DEA opens tip line

As Sacramento’s fentanyl crisis continues growing, with 42 overdoses and 10 deaths, law enforcement announced stepped-up efforts Monday to investigate the source of the region’s contaminated painkillers.

“It’s alarming to have 42 overdoses in a short period of time,” said Casey Rettig, a San Francisco-based special agent with the federal Drug Enforcement Administration.

“We’ve been working with a sense of urgency,” she said, noting that the DEA now has “dozens of investigators” working the case, assisted by state and local law enforcement. On Monday, it announced a new anonymous tip line: 530-722-7577.

“There may be individuals out there in the Sacramento area who have information that could assist us,” Rettig said. “Any information that we get involving these counterfeit tablets would be helpful.”

A powerful painkiller often used with post-surgery patients in hospitals, fentanyl is an odorless substance considered to be 25 to 50 times more potent than heroin and 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the DEA. In the Sacramento area, the recent spree of overdoses and deaths has been linked to illegal street sales of hydrocodone pills often resembling the prescription painkiller Norco – but apparently containing fentanyl.

Of the 10 deaths, nine were in Sacramento County and one in Yolo County, according to public health officials.

The weekend increase of new overdose cases means the public health crisis is not over, said Laura McCasland, spokeswoman for the Sacramento County Health and Human Services Department.

“We are treating this as an emergency because educating the public as quickly as possible is critical to saving lives,” she said. “We hope it comes to a stop. We’re hoping that word gets out (on the street), so people do not take (the drugs) anymore.”

Dr. Melody Law, assistant health officer for Sacramento County, said she’s talked by phone with more than 10 patients who’ve been treated for opiate overdoses believed to be tied to fentanyl.

Most told her they’d taken anywhere from a half-tablet to one or two Norco tablets, then experienced what was “not a normal reaction to taking that dose.” Most passed out after an initial high, then woke up either in the emergency room or being tended to by paramedics.

Patients “were afraid they’d flat-lined or were about to die,” Law said.

Some said they bought the pills from “a stranger in a park,” or from a friend of a friend, she said. Some had purchased pills they thought were Norco from their regular seller but had never had such an extreme reaction.

The DEA is investigating the source of the fentanyl-tainted pills, whose components are believed to be imported from China, illicitly manufactured in Mexico and smuggled into California by major drug traffickers, Rettig said.

Fentanyl, long used in hospitals for post-surgery pain management, has catapulted past heroin as a cause of overdose deaths in many East Coast states in the last few years, but only recently landed in California, according to law enforcement officials.

Rettig, who oversees an area from Bakersfield north to the Oregon border, said the Sacramento investigation is “our No. 1 priority.” She said multiple tips have already come into DEA investigators, but they are seeking additional help from the public to trace the source of the contaminated pills and tablets.

The recent wave of overdoses began showing up in Sacramento-area hospital emergency rooms on March 23. As of Friday, officials were reporting 36 overdoses, including nine deaths.

Sacramento County Coroner Kimberly Gin said all of the county’s nine deaths that are possibly fentanyl-related are under investigation but an exact cause of death has not yet been determined.

Law enforcement and public health officials reminded consumers to only take prescription medications that are prescribed by personal physicians or obtained from a reputable pharmacy.

Claudia Buck: 916-321-1968, @Claudia_Buck.

Jack Chang contributed to this report.

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