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Fentanyl deaths in Clark County jump during first half of 2020

Updated July 27, 2020 - 8:43 pm

The Southern Nevada Health District released data Monday showing an alarming uptick in deaths in Clark County involving fentanyl — despite opioid deaths falling in the last five years.

According to the data, in just half a year, the county nearly tied the number of fentanyl deaths for all of 2019.

In recent weeks, there were days when Clark County Coroner John Fudenberg’s team saw as many as five opioid overdoses in a single day.

“We’ve been extremely busy,” he said. “It’s definitely stretching our staff beyond their limits.”

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

Between January and July, amid the statewide shutdown triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic, fentanyl killed 63 people in Clark County, a 125 percent increase from the 28 deaths seen last year during the same time, according to the health district.

“It is important for people to be aware of the growing public health risk fentanyl poses to our community,” Dr. Fermin Leguen, acting chief health officer for the health district, said in a statement Monday. “It can be fatal, and it can be found in other drugs.”

But the increase isn’t unique to Southern Nevada.

As of July 20, more than 35 states had reported increases in opioid-related deaths — from California to Florida and Minnesota to Texas, according to the American Medical Association.

Experts say the pandemic, which has posed a unique set of challenges for addicts and individuals in recovery, could be driving the surge in opioid deaths. Those stressors include isolation, financial strain and a lack of support.

“Research shows that people get into addictions mainly for two reasons,” said Gloria Wong-Padoongpatt, an assistant professor of psychology at UNLV. “Life is too hard and … life is too boring.”

Social support is a “main predictor of recovery success,” she added. “Folks are reporting isolation at high rates so it can be assumed that they are also lacking the social support if they are trying to quit using.”

Further data on fatal overdoses obtained Monday by the Review-Journal from the Clark County coroner’s office shows that in April, at the height of Nevada’s shutdown, fentanyl contributed to 19 deaths. And in May, as the state began to slowly reopen, fentanyl contributed to 26 deaths, including the high-profile fatal overdoses of an actor who appeared in the movie “Twilight” and his girlfriend.

On May 13, the 30-year-old actor, Gregory Tyree Boyce, and his 27-year-old girlfriend, Natalie Adepoju, were found dead inside a Las Vegas apartment after an accidental cocaine and fentanyl overdose. Boyce portrayed Tyler Crowley in the 2008 movie.

Though the number of opioid deaths in Clark County during the pandemic is well documented, it is unclear how many nonfatal overdoses have occurred in the same period.

But since the onset of the pandemic, the Desert Hope Treatment Center in Las Vegas, for example, has seen a roughly 10 percent increase in demand for its services, said Derek Price, the center’s CEO.

But Price said that figure likely only represents a fraction of the community that needs help.

“The stigma behind getting help is always something to think about, but now people have lost their jobs, they might not have insurance,” he said. “And on top of that, you don’t have your social support there to endorse the help you need.”

Instead, he said, addicts are now “living in their own vacuum, in their own head.”

“The pandemic is making an already very bad situation monumentally worse,” he said of addiction. “It’s almost as if all of the chips are stacked against a person with addictive tendencies. The bottom line is it costs money to get care, but people are losing their jobs. Financial strain leads to depression, and when they start to stress, they feel pain, and when they feel pain, they want to erase it.”

And drug dealers know it, Price added.

Fentanyl is cheap, easy to find, and, the Drug Enforcement Administration has said, is often added to other drugs to increase potency.

“Many users believe that they are purchasing heroin and actually don’t know that they are purchasing fentanyl – which often results in overdose deaths,” according to the DEA.

Since 2018, at least 173 Clark County residents have died from a fentanyl overdose.

Contact Rio Lacanlale at rlacanlale@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0381. Follow @riolacanlale on Twitter.

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