SAN FRANCISO (KTVU) - Health officials are sounding the alarm in San Francisco. They say fentanyl is now the leading cause of opioid overdose deaths in San Francisco, claiming more lives than heroin or oxycodone.
According to San Francisco health officials, San Francisco averaged one fentanyl overdose death a week in 2018, or 57 overall deaths for the year.
Dr. Chris Colwell, chief of emergency medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, who runs the ER department, said the number of fentanyl-related overdoses he’s seeing is alarming. He wants to warn people how dangerous the drug is.
KTVU spoke with drug users who say the number of overdose deaths is out of control.
Johnny Ayala Lopez said he’s homeless and uses heroin. He said his supplier turned him on to fentanyl two months ago.
“A lot of people are turning to fentanyl because of its strength,” Lopez said.
Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller used by doctors to treat patients recovering from surgery or for cancer.
Some say it is up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
“It is something that is very dangerous and really should be avoided outside of medical hands,” Dr. Colwell said.
Colwell said he’s seen up to 12 fentanyl overdoses in a day, though they have not all resulted in deaths. He said users are either injecting or smoking the drug.
“It has taken over heroin as the number one choice for opioid,” Colwell said.
Initially, fentanyl was used to lace drugs such as heroin and cocaine, but now experts say people are using the drug because of its easy access and they can get a high with a small dose.
“In San Francisco, that’s how fentanyl came to us. In counterfeit pills at first a few years ago. At this point it is its own drug supply,” said Kristen Marshall from the DOPE Project (Drug Overdose Prevention & Education).
“Are you scared?” KTVU’s Amber Lee asked Jeff Habib, a homeless person who said he uses crack cocaine. “Yeah, because the few people I know that I call friends are no longer here because of that stuff,” Habib said.
He says he’s concerned about getting cocaine that’s laced with fentanyl.
“You don’t know what’s good, what’s not. What’s high potency. What’s not. It’s a crap shoot. You don’t know until it’s too late,” Habib said.
In 2010, there were six deaths from fentanyl overdose in San Francisco. But in just the first two weeks of this month, officials say 10 people died from a fentanyl overdose.
Experts say making NARCAN (Naloxone) a nasal spray; readily available, to counteract the drug is helping to save lives.
For Ayala Lopez, he said fentanyl is helping him cope with an illness while living on the streets.
“Fentanyl gives me relief. Also better relief as a matter of fact,” he said.
Experts and medical officials are advising those who use fentanyl to not do so alone. If someone loses consciousness or stops breathing, use NARCAN if it’s available and call for help.
Experts say education is prevention.