“Now is just not a good time to be an addict,” is the opinion of the Portsmouth City Health Department’s Lisa Roberts, a registered nurse and also well-known as an expert on local addiction issues.
Roberts said as a practical matter it’s impossible to say how many suspicious fatal overdoses have occurred recently in the Portsmouth area, but she put the number at somewhere between four to six suspicious deaths very recently. As a result of these deaths and other factors, the city on Sunday posted a special narcotics alert on their social media page trying to make local users aware of the dangers of an apparently very strong, very much potentially deadly drug making its way through the community.
One of those other factors mentioned by Roberts is a decided uptick in the number of persons showing up at local emergency rooms and acting “unusually psychotic,” in Roberts terms.
“It’s very unusual,” Roberts said, adding the city has been issuing emergency drug alerts as needed for some time. She said the recent crisis cropped up in the last three to four weeks. The reason no one can say for sure what caused the recent deaths, or how exactly how many users have been affected, is autopsies and toxicology reports take several weeks to be completed, Robert said. Still, she again added local officials were more than alarmed enough to issue their alert.
Along with their regular needle exchange program, Roberts noted the county has been handing out fentanyl test strips to users, actually about 2,000 of the strips since December. To Roberts, the most alarming situation uncovered by use of those strips is what is being sold as heroin has turned out to be 100 percent fentanyl. Of stimulant drugs or amphetamine commonly known as ice tested, about half has proven in reality to be fentanyl.
Compared to normal heroin, fentanyl is up to 100 times more powerful, Roberts said. Especially when taken intravenously, in other words when shot into a vein with a needle, it can cause respiratory distress and death within minutes. With normal heroin, Roberts noted, would-be rescuers had a window of at least a few minutes to save the victim’s life. With fentanyl use, that window disappears.
“People die really fast,” Roberts said.
One incredibly important key to potentially saving the life of a fentanyl victim is the quick use of Narcan, according to Roberts. Narcan is, of course, very commonly used to resuscitate overdosing opioid users. Roberts noted it is available to the general public without a prescription at many local pharmacies, is covered by some medical insurance plans and also is available at the city health department offices.
The city alert notes even if you administer Narcan to a possible OD victim, immediately call 911 for further help. Roberts added both local police departments and EMS crews are well-stocked with Narcan themselves.
One other thing to keep in mind, Roberts pointedly noted, is Ohio has a Good Samaritan law on the books. In other words, if you see someone you suspect is overdosing, you can administer Narcan without fear of legal repercussions.
Roberts noted obviously the best way to avoid contact with unwanted fentanyl is abstention from drug use, something that clearly is not an easy option for those fighting addictions. She suggested now might be a very good time for those who find themselves addicted to seek out a treatment program, noting addiction centers are plentiful throughout Scioto County.
Why would drug dealers purposely sell their clients fentanyl disguised as heroin or methamphetamine laced with fentanyl? Roberts said in many cases the sellers, most often also addicts themselves, may not be aware of what they are really peddling. She noted there is not exactly a quality control system in place for street-level drugs.
Money likely plays a key role in the introduction of fentanyl into the illicit drug supply. Roberts said it is much easier and cheaper to import fentanyl through the mail from China then to arrange the transport of pounds of heroin across the border from Mexico or some other country. According to Roberts, the potential profits for dealers using fentanyl instead of actual heroin or methamphetamine are exponentially higher.