CLEVELAND — Tuesday, May 10 is the first National Fentanyl Awareness Day, aimed at drawing attention to a substance that’s become more prevalent in recent years, and is contributing to an increasing number of overdoses.
Fentanyl is a synthetic drug that can be used legally and medically, and is an opioid similar to morphine or oxycodone. However, it can also be created and sold illicitly, and added into street drugs, or made to look like pills that may otherwise appear as if they came from a prescription.
“It has been showing up in street drugs and replacing other things like heroin and things like oxycodone on the street, and because it is more potent, very small differences in dose can mean a huge difference, and can mean an overdose versus not," said Dr. Ryan Marino, an emergency physician, medical toxicologist, and addiction specialist at University Hospitals.
The CDC has reported that drugs laced with fentanyl contributed to 64% of overdoses in 2021. According to University Hospitals, deaths involving illicit fentanyl are fastest growing in 14 to 23 year olds.
“Over the past, I think about 10 or so years, we have seen overdose deaths in this country go up dramatically,” Dr. Marino said. “We are talking very steep slope increase here, and within the past two years alone, both years we had more than 100,000 overdose deaths in the United States, the vast majority of which were attributable to fentanyl. That number keeps going up year on year.”
Marino said that every overdose, especially opioid overdoses like fentanyl, are preventable. He referenced resources like Narcan to reverse overdoses, as well as tools like fentanyl test strips.
“What we’ve seen so far is that even though we have a lot of great resources and tools that we can use to address this, it is kind of going unchecked, and the numbers are increasing every year,” he said. “Particularly here in Ohio and Northeast Ohio, we have been very hard hit. We have lost a lot of people from kind of younger generations, this has had a dramatic impact on our economy, on our workforce. These are really big, societal issues that we want to address.”
3News looked at overdose numbers for Northeast Ohio and found that fentanyl played a role in the majority of overdoses over the past two years in three counties.
In Lorain County in 2020, there were 143 overdose deaths, and 117 were related to fentanyl. Last year, there were 147 overdose deaths, with 119 related to fentanyl.
In 2020 in Summit County, there were 217 presumed overdoses, and 165 were listed as “cause of death incudes fentanyl.” In 2021, there were 226 presumed overdoses, with 189 deaths including fentanyl. In January of this year, there were more presumed overdoses and cases with fentanyl included in cause of death than any month over the past two years in Summit County.
According to the Cuyahoga County overdose data dashboard, in 2020, there were 549 total overdose deaths reported, with 416 listed as involving fentanyl. In 2021, there were 710 drug related deaths, with 499 linked to fentanyl.
“The main thing to know is that fentanyl can only cause problems for someone who is using drugs,” Dr. Marino said. “It’s not a risk that everyone needs to be scared of, but having the awareness that something being bought and sold on the street is probably not going to be what you expect it to be.”
National Fentanyl Awareness Day comes on the heels of the accidental overdose deaths of two Ohio State University students, one of whom was from Broadview Heights. Columbus police tell 3News that they are waiting for lab results to determine what substances the victims took, and they are also “working on leads to figure out where the drugs came from.”
On Thursday, OSU’s webpage for the Office of Student Life shared a warning from Columbus Public Health about fake Adderall pills appearing to contain fentanyl.
In a statement shared with 3News, OSU said they are grieving the two deaths:
"The Ohio State community is grieving the deaths of Jessica Lopez and Tiffany Iler. Jessica was a Computer & Information Science student from Greendale, Indiana. Tiffany was a Neuroscience student from Broadview Heights. We are heartbroken and extend our deepest sympathies to their families and friends during this extremely difficult time.
One student was also hospitalized and released. The university has reached out to their family, and we are thinking about them and their loved ones.
Counseling services are available for students in need by calling 614-292-5766."