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The Division of Public Health responds to growing number of overdose deaths

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Delaware Public Media
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The Division of Public Health released 2020 data on drug overdose deaths from the State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System.

It reports 445 people died of unintentional drug overdoses in 2020, and DPH says since then the number has risen 15%.

And the data points to fentanyl, a highly potent synthetic opioid, as a main cause. The 2020 SUDORS fact sheet listed fentanyl as the cause of death in 83.6% of unintentional overdose cases.

Katie Capelli is an epidemiologist in the Division of Public Health’s Office of Health Crisis Response. She says it’s important the public understands even one exposure to fentanyl can be life threatening.

“It just reconfirms to us the data that we’re already seeing, but it also sends a message to the public to test drugs, to go slow, to make sure that the public is aware that this deadly drug is being added to all types of drugs on the market,” said Capelli.

2020 Delaware Overdose Sheet
Delaware Health and Social Services
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Division of Public Health

She adds 78.2% of overdose deaths had more than one drug class present, with fentanyl being combined with heroin, cocaine, methamphetamines, and benzodiazepines.

This point was reinforced by DPH Interim Director Rick Hong, who says that it’s best to assume no illicit drugs are safe.

“As we commemorate International Overdose Awareness Day on August 31 and remember the lives lost to overdose, it is important for all Delawareans and visitors to the state to know that no illicit drug is safe,” said Hong. “Assume that drugs not prescribed by your doctor contain, or are laced with, fentanyl. The information analyzed by the Overdose Data to Action collaborative clearly shows that fentanyl is present in not only opioids, but also cocaine, and counterfeit prescription medications.”

In response to the growing number of overdose deaths, as well as the overwhelming number of deaths involving fentanyl, DPH is working to distribute fentanyl test strips to the public.

Capelli says while the test strips are highly sensitive and accurate, there is still a chance fentanyl is present but not detected.

“We still encourage if the public is using these test strips that they still have other mechanisms to prevent overdose,” explained Capelli. “Like having Narcan on hand, making sure that they’re not using alone, and then going slow to monitor their side effects from the drug. So this is just one mechanism the public can use to prevent an overdose.”

Fentanyl is unable to be detected by sight, taste, smell, or touch, making it impossible to know if a drug has been laced without testing it.

Fentanyl test strips are currently being distributed in Narcan kits along with the opioid overdose reversal medication Narcan, but DPH hopes to finalize a strategy to distribute test strips in bulk soon.

More information, including how to obtain Narcan kits and test strips, can be found on www.helpisherede.com.

Quinn Kirkpatrick was born and raised in Wilmington, Delaware and a graduated of the University of Delaware. She joined Delaware Public Media in June 2021