Fentanyl responsible for rising number of overdoses

Fentanyl is not only deadly to user, but can also become airborne

By Rachel Lucas - Weekend Anchor / Reporter

FRANKLIN COUNTY, Va. - An alarming jump in fatal drug overdoses is largely due to a more deadly drug of choice, authorities said. 

The drug, fentanyl, is not only deadly to the user, but it can also become airborne, possibly causing accidental overdoses in anyone who comes in contact with the drug. In the last four years, the number of people who have died from its use has increased 438 percent.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, drug overdoses increased 38 percent in Virginia between 2015 and 2016. Opioids have in recent years been largely to blame for overdoses. 

Of the 572 opioid overdose deaths in 2012, 185 were related to fentanyl and/or the use of heroin.

Prescription drugs were to blame for the remaining fatal overdose deaths. But in 2016, that drastically changed.

According to the Virginia Department of Health, 810 of the 1,133 deaths from opioid overdoses in 2016 were tied to fentanyl and/or heroin use.

Fatal drug overdoses increased 38 percent in Virginia between 2015 and 2016, an alarming jump that state health officials attribute to the abuse of synthetic opioids, heroin, and prescription fentanyl.

That number nearly tripled in just a year’s time according to VDH statistics.

Drug overdoses have been the leading unnatural cause of death in Virginia since 2013, when they surpassed motor vehicle and gun-related deaths, prompting the state to declare a public health emergency.

According to the Franklin County Sheriff's Department, fentanyl has now been found in Franklin County. Major Michael Bowman said they are investigating one confirmed case.

Every deputy with the Franklin County Sheriff's Department keeps two doses of naloxone in their cars at all times. It's enough to save one person who is overdosing from any type of opioid medication. So far this year, Bowman said they've saved the lives of 10 people who were overdosing in the county. One person wasn't saved.

Despite high success rates in opioid overdoses, it isn't as effective for fentanyl. In fact, Bowman said it takes at least six doses of naloxone to save someone overdosing from fentanyl. 

It's a deadly drug that is now not only dangerous for the user, but deputies said it's potentially deadly for innocent bystanders near the substance.

"Everybody should be concerned about," Bowman said.  "You can accidentally have an overdose just by coming in contact with it."

As the illegal use of the drug becomes more popular, that explains why more and more overdose deaths are related to fentanyl's use.

Now that a case has been confirmed in Franklin County, Bowman said not only must they protect the public, but also their deputies from hazards when responding to cases.

This year alone they've saved the lives of 10 people who were overdoing using naloxone they carry in their cruisers. At $75 each, plus more protective gear to protect deputies, it’s going to be a costly but necessary measure.

“So we are going to begin to take measures in our department and equip our guys with gear they need in order to protect them when they know they are in that type of environment so that they don't breathe it, they'll have protective gloves so they don't touch it...but we can't protect for everything," Bowman said.

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