Fentanyl fuels alarming rise in San Francisco's accidental drug overdoses

Just as San Francisco is seeing its lowest COVID-19 positivity rates since the pandemic began, the rate of accidental drug overdoses, hospitalizations, and deaths is outpacing the city's expanding teams of crisis intervention specialists.

In 2020, 712 people died from accidental drug overdoses across the city and county of San Francisco, and this year is on track to set a new record, according to preliminary data from the San Francisco chief medical examiner's office.

"This is an absolute crisis, an epidemic unlike anything we have ever seen," Matt Haney, San Francisco supervisor representing District 6, which includes the Tenderloin and South of Market, said.

Close to half of the 252 reported accidental overdose deaths on record from January through April of 2021 have been in Haney's district.

"It's horrific. We are losing more than two people a day. The numbers have tripled over the last three years and it is absolutely the most awful, devastating, deadly epidemic that is facing our city. And it's getting a lot worse. It has gotten a lot worse," Haney said.

FLASHBACK: San Francisco sees record for fatal drug overdoses in 2020

Fentanyl, a powerful and highly addictive synthetic opioid, much cheaper than heroin, entered the San Francisco drug market a few years ago, Haney said.

The data on overdose deaths from the medical examiner's office comes out monthly instead of annually, thanks to a law Haney crafted that passed last year.

The chief medical examiner's latest overdose death report shows Fentanyl contributed to significantly more overdose deaths this year and last year than heroin, methamphetamine, cocaine, and other opioids.

SEE ALSO:San Francisco's opioid crisis exploding amid COVID-19 pandemic

"Over 400 of the 700 people who died of overdose last year had recently been in one of our ambulances in San Francisco. So these are people who are known to us," Haney said.

Those individuals are the ones San Francisco Mayor London Breed is making an effort to help.

On Friday she proposed adding more crisis response teams to perform repeated interventions with drug users, offering them wellness and mental health resources, long-term treatment, and shelter or housing if needed. 

One in four individuals experiencing homelessness died from accidental drug overdoses from January through April. 71 percent of the people who died this year from accidental overdoses were living in a fixed address, the chief medical examiner's data shows.

If Breed's proposed street teams are approved in July, the first teams will begin to launch in August.

"We want to make sure that they have access to treatment, to care, we assign them a case manager so somebody's following up with them," Haney said. "And we actually take real action to save their lives."