“We are seeing more fentanyl overdoses among people who do not know they are using fentanyl,” Wilson said. Drug overdose deaths in Jefferson County increased sharply from 2014 to 2017 before leveling off and decreasing slightly. However, overdose deaths now seem to be accelerating. Yates said the number of Black people who have died from overdoses increased 72 percent in the first quarter of 2021. There are kits available to test drugs for fentanyl, but Wilson said they are classified as paraphernalia in Alabama and illegal under state law. Users can take some steps to reduce the risk of overdose death.
Drug overdose deaths hit record levels last year as the pandemic disrupted the drug supply and access to lifesaving overdose reversal drugs. Jefferson and Mobile counties received federal grants to more closely track drug overdoses, which enabled health officials to identify alarming overdose trends. Yates said he worries that last year was just the beginning. “Somebody’s first exposure to this could be their last,” Wilson said. “It could kill them. These folks, regardless of what they’re addicted to, are people we care about”
“Last year, we broke records,” Yates said. “At this point, we are on pace to crush last year’s records.” That poses extra dangers to drug users who haven’t been exposed to fentanyl before, said Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson.
Yates said the increase in homicides has dominated headlines, but pales in comparison to drug-related deaths. “The deaths are occurring in the dark, in the background and they are only getting worse,” Yates said. “The purpose of me being here is to raise the alarm and I hope I have done that.” “Everyone should be aware of how to use naloxone,” Leisch said.
Naloxone, which can reverse the effects of opioids such as fentanyl, is also available at pharmacies and the Jefferson County Department of Health. Experts recommend keeping the treatment, also known as Narcan, on hand in case of emergency. Dr. Leah Leisch, medical director of Beacon Integrated Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said people should never use drugs alone, avoid mixing drugs and keep doors unlocked in case first responders need to enter a building.
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