Counties in OR See Unsettling Spike in Fatal Overdoses

Health officials have noticed a sudden spike in opioid deaths in Jackson County, OR, and are concerned that either fentanyl has moved into the market or strong batch heroin is around. In 2016, four people in Jackson County died of heroin overdoses. Six died in 2017. Within the first four months of the year, 10 people have died, according to Jackson County Medical Director Dr. Jim Shames. That’s a nearly 70 percent increase in nearly a quarter of the time. “It’s a huge increase, and unfortunately we just don’t know enough to be sure what the cause is,” Shames said.

Multnomah County can see 20 overdose deaths in a month, according to county records, but its population is close to 800,000 people. Jackson County has just over 200,000, according to the last Census numbers. Shames said that right now, the spike is focused in Southern Oregon, but he is talking with health departments, police, medical examiners, substance abuse agencies and social workers throughout the state.

“The concern is that we could be the canary in the coal mine,” Shames said, because Jackson County is the first stop in Oregon on the Interstate 5 corridor heading north from California. Oregon has reduced the number of prescribed opioids, which, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, has in turn decreased the number of overdose deaths. However, the state is seeing a significant increase in deaths due to synthetic opioids. So authorities expect either the synthetic opioid fentanyl has moved into the market or a new supplier with stronger heroin.

Fentanyl has boomed in the illicit drug market with people who lose access to prescription opioids. It can be cut into heroin without users knowing, causing it to become a leader in a nationwide trend of increasing opioid overdose deaths. “When you look at communities where fentanyl has come to town, this is what it looks like,” Shames said. Fentanyl is one of several increasingly common synthetic opioids that are especially potent.

Jackson County is reaching out to everyone who deals with heroin and synthetic opioid users to encourage people to test their heroin before using it to check whether it has fentanyl mixed in. Government and nonprofit groups also are trying to make sure the lifesaving overdose medication naxolone is available in areas where a lot of people use drugs. The United States surgeon general issued a rare national advisory in early April that encouraged people to carry naloxone, which is expensive but relatively easy for people without medical training to use.

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