Terry: State suffering tidal wave of drug overdose deaths

About the writer: Lynne Terry serves as editor-in-chief of the Oregon Capital Chronicle, a nonprofit news outlet based in Salem and found online at oregoncapitalchronicle.com. She has also served as editor of The Lund Report, senior producer at Oregon Public Broadcasting, Paris correspondent for National Public Radio and longtime health reporter at The Oregonian. Reprinted under Creative Commons licensing.

As lawmakers prepare to tackle the state’s addiction crisis, new data from the Oregon Health Authority shows how dire it has become.

Some 280 people died of a drug overdose in Oregon in 2019. Fatalities have risen every year since, more than tripling by 2022, when 956 died.

Last year, even more people died, according to preliminary data.

The state is still compiling data for 2023, but each month the number came in above that of 2022, reaching 628 in June. If the toll continued at that pace through year’s end, it would end up at 1,250.

The number of overdose patients seeking help in emergency departments and urgent care centers also rose last year, to more than 300. And the upward trend is expected to continue this year.

In fact, “Oregon’s overdose fatality rate is expected (to) sharply rise over the coming year due to the saturation of fentanyl in Oregon’s illicit drug supply,” Jonathan Modie, a public health spokesman, said in an email.

Oregon is being flooded with fentanyl in the form of blue pills designed to resemble 30-milligram oxycodone pills, known as M30s. They’re cheap, typically selling for a dollar each, and are often mixed with other drugs to make them more potent, according to the federal Drug Enforcement Agency.

There’s no way of knowing how much is in each pill, but 2 milligrams — enough to fit on the tip of a pencil — can kill. And many pills tested by the DEA contain much more than that, up to 5 milligrams, or more than twice the lethal dose.

“Fentanyl is far more potent and fast acting than other opioids, which significantly increases a person’s risk of a fatal overdose,” Modie added.

Mexican drug dealers smuggle fentanyl into the U.S., often in the form of powder. It’s distributed across the country, but Oregon has been particularly hard hit.
Modie explained it has among the highest rates of illicit drug use nationwide and among the lowest rates of access to treatment.

The fatalities include an increasing number of young people, prompting the health authority to expand a school harm reduction initiative called Save Lives Oregon in December. The program is offering three free kits of naloxone, an opioid reversal medication administered as a nasal spray, to schools, colleges and universities that serve children at least 7 years old.

Last year, the Legislature passed a law designed to make naloxone, often known under the trade name Narcan, more available.

It allows law enforcement officials, firefighters and emergency providers to distribute and administer the drug. It also allows school employees to treat students without their parents’ permission in an emergency.

Naloxone is widely available over the counter in Oregon. And pharmacists can prescribe it, enabling people to seek reimbursement from their insurance company.

Health officials said they know naloxone is more available today than it was two years ago, but aren’t sure how many deaths it’s preventing. Save Lives Oregon said it has documented more than 7,500 opioid reversals since 2020.

People can carry naloxone with them in Oregon if they wish, and administer it to someone experiencing an overdose.

Typical signs include unconsciousness, a reduction or cessation of breathing and snoring or gurgling sounds. Victims may also lose the ability to speak and find their lips and the inside of their mouths turning blue or gray.


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