By Will Duvall and Kimberly Gomez Santos
The number of deaths due to opioid related overdoses has steadily increased in Sacramento County, with 215 fatalities in 2022, state data show. The increase comes even as the number of opioid-based prescriptions has dropped significantly.
There were about 14 Sacramento County deaths per 100,000 residents in 2022, according to the California Department of Public Health. That is up from 4 deaths per 100,000 residents in 2017.
Medical officials and experts blamed the rise in opioid deaths on the increased potency of drugs. Some said more education and outreach is necessary to deter new addictions and help residents already suffering.
Adam Dougherty, an emergency physician at Sutter Medical Center Sacramento, said, “I think it’s multifactorial. One aspect is the narcotic, the drug itself. Fentanyl is extremely high in potency, and it’s very easy to get the dosage wrong for the individual looking to use.”
Dougherty added that opioid deaths are “cutting across all social strata, so anyone from the affluent, to the poor, to the working class, to the white collar.”
Lori Miller, a licensed clinical social worker for the county Department of Health Services, noted that the opioid crisis peaked locally within the last five years.
While efforts to educate Sacramento County residents about the dangers of opioid overdoses and deaths are increasing, Miller said that there is still a lot of work to do.
“As much as we’ve done in the last two-to-five years, there’s still people in our community that don’t know what fentanyl is,” she explained, “and so obviously that tells us that we need to do more.”
Dougherty points out that those with opioid addictions should be told that they don’t need to be ashamed, and that they can safely seek help.
“Socially, we have this perception of it being in the shadows and this taboo topic,” he said. “We haven’t allowed individuals to more freely seek treatment in a way they don’t feel shame or fear of criminal punishment.”
Dougherty also mentioned the California Bridge Program, a state funded effort to put substance use navigators in emergency rooms to do early interventions, as an effective way to fight the problem.
Charley Garcia, 22, has seen the effects of opioid overdoses through the struggles his friend’s uncle faces.
“For a long time, he has been in and out of homeless shelters because of his addiction,” Garcia said. “He is unable to live around the family, he does not work, and he often seeks money from family to pay for his habits. He has overdosed a few times, but continues to struggle.”
Garcia thinks society should reflect on how it treats people with addictions.
“I believe the solution is that we should decriminalize the use of opioids and target the sellers rather than the users, as well as putting more resources towards drug prevention and treatment for those affected by opioid use,” Garcia said.
It’s clear that the problem is not yet fading. As of last month, Miller recounted, Sacramento County had already seen more than 200 deaths due to fentanyl overdoses in 2023.
Dougherty continues to see heartbreaking stories play out in the emergency room.
“It does certainly hit harder when we see children come in with accidental fentanyl overdoses and we have to deal with that both directly with the patient and with the family as a whole trying to figure out how the kid was able to ingest fentanyl,” he said.