L.A. County officials come together to tackle fentanyl epidemic

Los Angeles County law enforcement, public health and education officials on Tuesday, Nov. 29, announced the formation of a working group to combat the escalating fentanyl epidemic by raising awareness of the drug’s deadliness and the use of naloxone to reverse its effects.

At a news conference at the Hall of Justice, District Attorney George Gascon stressed that the combined efforts of all involved will focus on a three-pronged platform of education, prevention and enforcement.

“This is the best our community has to offer to deal with a problem that is going to require all hands on deck,” Gascon said.

Los Angeles County’s announcement came a little more than a month after Riverside County law enforcement and public health officials announced a similar partnership to attack the fentanly epidemic from all fronts, launching its “Faces of Fentanyl” public awareness campaign and website.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore. (File photo by Dean Musgrove, Los Angeles Daily News/SCNG)

At the time of the Riverside County news conference on Oct. 20, the county had logged 338 fentanyl-related deaths, but Sheriff Chad Bianco said the county was on track to exceed last year’s fentanyl deat toll of 407.

In addition to creating a new task force, Los Angeles County also on Tuesday released a 25-page report on fentanyl poisonings. It noted that from 2016 through 2021, fentanyl  deaths increased 1,280%, from 109 in 2016 to 1,504 in 2021. And from 2016 to 2020, fentanyl overdose hospitalizations increased 98%, from 102 in 2016 to 202 in 2020.

Los Angeles County Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer said that in 2021, the county averaged seven to eight fatal overdoses a day, with approximately half of them fentanyl related. Methamphetamine drove the other fatal overdoses, she said.

Overdose deaths among youths younger than 18 have climbed nearly eight times since 2018, from four in 2018 to 31 in 2021, Ferrer said.

“That said, adults aged 26 to 39 had the highest number of fentanyl overdoses, with 626 deaths in 2021,” she said.

Although White residents accounted for the largest number of fentanyl deaths, when adjusting for the differences in population sizes, Black residents actually had the higher rates of fentanyl deaths, emergency department visits and hospitalizations, followed by White residents, Latino residents and Asian residents, Ferrer said.

And while nearly half of all fentanyl overdoses occurred in more affluent areas of the county, with less than 10% of families living under the federal poverty limit, the same thing applied if adjusting for population rates: fentanyl deaths are disproportionately higher in communities with the highest levels of poverty, Ferrer said.

“In short, the biggest takeaway from the data on fentanyl overdoses in L.A. County is that the tragedies resulting from fentanyl are indiscriminately impacting everyone, regardless of age, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status,” Ferrer said.

Los Angeles Police Chief Michel Moore said his officers have seized 1.4 million pills so far this year, and that every four out of every 10 of them contain a fentanyl dose sufficient to cause death. “That’s a staggering number,” he said.

Moore said the price of an average pill bought on the street has dropped to a matter of cents on the dollar. Five years ago, a pill bought on the street would cost anywhere from $5 to $20, but now they can be bought for less than a dollar each, he said.

“That’s where our young people and others are believing this is an experiment or trial, or an effort that they can just see what happens, and we’re seeing the deadly results,” Moore said. “This is the number one killer of people between 18 and 45 years of age.”

Deborah Duardo, superintendent of the Los Angeles County Office of Education, said her office has been working with all 80 of the county’s school districts to ensure they have the resources needed to educate their students and communities on the dangers of fentanyl, and that all districts have naloxone and all staff are trained in its use.

Los Angeles Unified School District Superintendent Alberto Carvalho said that, since June, 12 students in his district have been “affected directly in school by this fentanyl crisis.”

“One of my beautiful students died in school as a result of contact with this drug,” Carvalho said.

Since September, about a week after 15-year-old Berstein High School student Melanie Ramos died of a fentanyl overdose on a bathroom floor at the school, the district deployed Narcan to all its schools and every police officer with the district police force.

“Since Sept. 22, we have saved seven lives in school as a result of the effective use of Narcan,” Carvalho said.

Juli Shamash, whose 19-year-old son Tyler died of a fentanyl overdose at a sober-living facility in Beverlywood in 2018, is among a growing number of parents who have lost their children to the synthetic opioid and are taking action to raise awareness and fight back.

“To parents out there who think, ‘not my child,’ think again,” Shamash said. She said she started her nonprofit Drug Awareness Foundation to alert the public to the dangers of fentanyl, which is 50 times more powerful than morphine. She was pleased to see the approach L.A. County is taking to tackle the problem.

“I am here representing an army of grieving parents, who are ready, willing and able to come to your schools and talk about this,” Shamash said.

If the county really wants to attack the fentanyl problem, it must focus on “harm-reduction models” that provide support services to the addicts and families affected by drug abuse, said Jeannette Zanipatin, California director of Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit focusing on criminal justice and drug policy reforms.

“Years of massive disinvestment have led to this,” Zanipatin said.

She said that to address the infiltration of fentanyl on the street and reduce overdose fatalities, Los Angeles County needs a comprehensive approach and response that includes investments in harm-reduction services, the creation of overdose prevention programs, making treatment-on-demand available, and facilitating reality-based and evidence-based drug education for parents, students and school administrators.

Additionally, it needs to establish proper social support networks, including better access to health care, mental health care, food and nutrition, job training and “housing first” models.

“Recycled, failed war on drug policies have only served to contaminate the drug supply and drive more people to overdose,” Zanipatin said. “We are at a pivotal moment right now. We must join forces to do more. What we’ve done in the past just simply isn’t working.”

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