Fresno County officials gathered in solidarity against what they consider the Central Valley’s latest pandemic, fentanyl.
“We all need to come together, and we all need to activate a community response,” said Fresno County Health Director Dr. Rais Vohra at Friday News Conference. “In the same way that we activated such a strong community response to help fight COVID, this [fentanyl] is the new pandemic.”
Fentanyl is an opioid narcotic used in hospitals to treat severe pain in patients. The drug can be 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine.
However, in the last few years, street fentanyl has become more commonplace in communities. Drug dealers are lacing opioids like Norco, Percocet and Xanax with the synthetic version of the drug.
Benny Ortiz, the assistant special agent in charge for the Fresno district office of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), said fentanyl in drugs has increased drug dealer’s profit margins.
“It’s easier to transport 10,000 pills of fentanyl across the border than it is to transport 10 pounds of meth,” Ortiz said. “The profit is astronomical. And that’s what they’re using now.”
Ortiz said supply and demand are why fentanyl is becoming common in the United States, due to drug dealers taking advantage of the opioid crisis.
A pill of fentanyl that would cost about $20 two years ago now goes for around $5.
The focus of the fentanyl news conference was to bring awareness to teenagers and young adults. Which officials are saying the group that has seen an upswing and is at risk.
“As a person who cares about the youth of this community and bringing awareness to this issue is very important, because in the last few years, we have seen a significant increase in these types of pills in our community, ”said Fresno police chief Paco Balderrama.
Balderrama said that when dealing with fentanyl busts, the amounts of pills seized are substantial. For example, he said during a recent bust, 60,000 pills were recovered, along with firearms.
“We need to be aware of it. We need to be aware of the overdoses. We need to be aware of what we’re doing to keep these types of drugs away from our kids,” said Balderrama.
Dawan Utecht, director of Behavioral Health for Fresno County, said she has seen a consistent rise in overdose deaths in the last several years and an uptick in young overdose deaths, including under 18-year-olds.
“I, too, am gravely concerned about the incidence of substance use in our county and particularly deaths associated with use,” Utecht said.
Assistant Sheriff from the Fresno County Sheriff’s Department John Zanoni said since 2018, the number of drug overdoses resulting in deaths has risen steadily.
According to the Fresno County Coroner’s office, overall deaths increased from 123 in 2018 to 164 in 2019 and 254 in 2020.
The fentanyl-related overdoses increased yearly from three to 15 to 35 over the last three years.
In 2021, coroners have confirmed 16 fentanyl drug overdoses, with 10 to 15 cases pending toxicology reports as of May 31.
Zanoni said that last year, 12 drug overdose deaths were among kids between the ages of 10 and 20.
NARCAN nasal spray is being used to resuscitate a person experiencing a drug overdose, which has led to Fresno police carrying it in their patrol cars at all times.
Dr. Vohra said that people with a substance use disorder need help long before they find themselves in a situation where NARCAN is required, but the grim reality is addiction traps people.
“The new CPR involves NARCAN because so many young people are losing their lives and losing their livelihoods, because of the opioid epidemic,” Dr. Vohra said. “The new CPR is making sure that all of us know about NARCAN, and know how to use it.”
Homeland security investigators have teamed up with the DEA and Fresno Police Department to formulate a targeted task for the Fentanyl Overdose Resolution Team (FORT).
FORT’s mission is to respond to the scene of an overdose, investigate the facts and circumstances around the event, and hunt down the sources of supply responsible for these events.
Supervisory Special Agent with Homeland Security Investigations Jeffrey Barbero says that the goal isn’t to investigate or prosecute the victims of fentanyl. Instead, the goal is to find sources of supply.
“I don’t think that there’s one person behind me that would disagree that this is of epidemic proportions,” said Fresno County District Attorney Lisa Smittcamp. “The amount of pills that are now on the streets of this community…is something that we have never seen.”
Smittcamp said that parents need to communicate with their children and inform them of deadly drug use results.
“Education and awareness is the most important part of fighting this war,” said Smittcamp.
Utecht said that those who need help or know someone who needs help should call the 24/7 access line at 1-800-654-3937. Community members can also find information at recoverfresno.com and havethetalkfresno.com.