As fentanyl gains ground in Sonoma County, Healdsburg police and hospital offer fentanyl detection strips, no questions asked.
The Healdsburg Police Department and Healdsburg District Hospital have recently introduced a new program meant to protect addicts and others who use illegal drugs from being accidentally poisoned by fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine.
Both the police and hospital are now making fentanyl detection strips available for free, no questions asked. The strips are available in the lobby of the police department and in the emergency department of the hospital.
This program was announced last Wednesday night at an event at the Raven Theater called “Confronting the Opioid Epidemic.” The decision to make fentanyl detection strips available free to the public comes on the heels of a Sonoma County Department of Health public health advisory warning physicians of the increasing number of deaths that involve fentanyl and fentanyl analogs.
According to this advisory, suspected accidental fentanyl-related deaths have quadrupled in Sonoma County since 2016. There were 12 fentanyl-related deaths in Sonoma County this year as of July 31, 2018; compared to just five in 2017, and three in 2016.
According to Sarah Katz, chief epidemiologist for Sonoma County, who gave a presentation at the event, more than half of the opiate-related deaths in northern Sonoma County in 2018 have involved fentanyl.
Fentanyl started appearing in illegal opioid drugs over the last few years, but according to several of the panelists, it’s now being added to other drugs as well.
“Right now, this is one of our biggest worries,” said panelist Terry Leach, one of the organizers of the event and one of the founding members of the Northern Sonoma County Harm Reduction Taskforce, a group working to stem the opioid epidemic in the county.
“Yesterday we learned that two teenagers in Livermore died after taking Xanax, which was most likely laced with fentanyl. Livermore is not that far away from us. We need all of the Healdsburg community to understand that fentanyl is now appearing in otherwise somewhat innocuous drugs.”
“You can lace a lot of different drugs with fentanyl, which is extremely dangerous, highly addictive, and so potent that it’s been feeding this exponential increase in overdoses in our community,” Healdsburg Police Chief Kevin Burke told event attendees.
“At the police department, we’re taking a very proactive approach,” Burke said. “If you walk into our lobby, you’ll see two resources: a bin for the safe disposal of medication and drugs, and in addition, in partnership with Healdsburg Hospital, we recently began carrying fentanyl test strips that are available to anyone.”
“You don’t have to interact with anyone in our department to use these resources,” Burke said. “You can just come in and safely go over and put whatever drugs you have into the bin, or you can get test strips 24 hours a day simply by walking into the police department and picking them up in the lobby. No questions asked.”
Burke said these efforts, as well as the department’s decision to have all officers carry Narcan, a medication that can revive someone who has overdosed, are a reflective of a deeper change in philosophy.
“At the police department, we are trying to reinvent the way police officers act with drug addicted folks, and it all starts by seeing it as a public health problem,” he said. “So we’re trying to change the paradigm that law enforcement has in relation to addiction and particularly with opioids.”
Leach, the emcee and one of the organizers of the event, lauded Burke’s efforts within the police department. “Healdsburg is blessed with a progressive police chief, who sees addiction as a public health crisis. When I first contacted him, he immediately said ‘What can I do to partner with you? We cannot arrest our way out of this.’”