The Department of Public Health is warning Philadelphians about an increase in fatal overdoses due to the use of the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl.
According to data provided by the Health Department, during last year testing of overdose victims persons increasingly revealed fentanyl mixed with other drug types, including stimulants, hallucinogens, and synthetic cannabinoids.
From the first quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2020, overdose deaths involving the stimulant methamphetamine in combination with fentanyl increased 350%. Over that same timeframe, deaths involving the hallucinogen PCP and fentanyl increased 1,333%.
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Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, 2020 is expected to have had the highest number of unintentional drug overdose deaths of any single year in the city. As of September 30, 2020, 950 unintentional overdose deaths were preliminarily reported, 13% and 11% higher than the number reported during the same time period in 2018 and 2019, respectively. Eighty-one percent of all drug overdose deaths in 2020 have involved fentanyl, the highest proportion ever reported.
Dr. Kendra Viner, director of the Health Department’s Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction division said, “Until recently, fentanyl was primarily being found in place of heroin and most drug sales involving fentanyl were occurring in Kensington and South Philadelphia. We focused most of our outreach efforts on a subpopulation of drug users in two specific geographic regions.”
High risk of overdose
“Now fentanyl is in everything and everyone who obtains drugs from an illicit source is potentially at risk. To respond we will need to ensure that all Philadelphians who use drugs are aware of the danger that this drug poses and what they can do to protect themselves,” Viner added.
Fentanyl is also being used as pills that resemble prescription opioids or benzodiazepines. While fentanyl has been in Philadelphia’s heroin supply for several years, its presence in non-opioid drugs and counterfeit pills is especially concerning since those who prefer these drugs may have had little exposure to such a potent opioid and the risk of overdose may be higher.
In order to mitigate the nocive impact of this drug on city residents, the Health Department announced that it will begin a community education initiative to spread awareness and prevent overdoses resulting from these drug mixtures. This initiative will involve delivering educational materials through street outreach, distributing fentanyl test strips and naloxone to people using various drugs, and launching a city-wide media campaign in early 2021.