SAN FRANCISCO - As concern over the omicron variant mounts in California, another public health crisis is lurking in plain sight: the drug epidemic.
A jaw-dropping report released Wednesday by the UCLA Luskin Institute on Inequality and Democracy found that nearly 1,500 people, the vast majority believed to be homeless, died on the streets of Los Angeles during the pandemic -- 40 percent because of a drug or alcohol overdose.
The staggering number is almost certainly an undercount, experts say.
Also Wednesday, the California Peace Coalition -- a group of parents whose kids are addicted to or have died from fentanyl or other illicit drugs -- held a die-in protest in the Tenderloin, calling on the state and San Francisco to shut down open-air drug markets, prosecute dealers, and place their kids in mandatory treatment.
And they slammed San Francisco leaders for their response to a drug epidemic that killed 712 city residents in 2020 -- nearly triple the amount of people who lost their lives to COVID-19.
The coalition: "Harm reduction initiatives like safe consumption sites and the widespread use of Narcan can't solve the problem and haven't been able to do so." The news comes about two weeks after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimated that more than 100,000 Americans -- including about 10,000 in California -- died of drug overdoses during the year-long period that ended April 2021.
That's a record high and a nearly 29 percent increase from the year before. Almost 64 percent of deaths were caused by the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Meanwhile, meth overdose deaths skyrocketed 48 percent.
A recent CNN investigation found that more Fresno County residents died of meth overdoses in 2020 than homicides or suicides; one- or two-vehicle crashes; and fire, falls and drowning combined.
Fresno County Sheriff's Deputy Todd Burk: "You can't live in this community and not have, at some point in your life, seen the effects of methamphetamine." A heart-rending, stunning Thursday story from San Francisco Chronicle columnist Heather Knight put the human toll of California's drug crisis -- and the inadequate political response that appears to be fueling it -- into painfully clear focus.
In May, Laurie Steves -- who had already lost one of her children to a fentanyl and ketamine overdose -- moved to San Francisco to try to wrest her 34-year-old daughter, Jessica DiDia, from the grasp of fentanyl and the Tenderloin.
She did not succeed.
Jessica: "The city is way too easy for people with nothing to get by. That's why I'm still here nine years later. You get by with doing drugs and suffer no consequences. I like it here."