PIMA CO., Ariz. — This year in Pima County, fentanyl use and deaths are already at an increased rate compared to last year. According to the health department, the county saw 45 overdose deaths in 2018. So far in 2019, from January to July, the county has already seen 45 overdose deaths.
"So that's an increase of over 180 percent-ish," Mark Person, a program manager with the Pima County Health Department, said. "We've seen a gradual increase over the course of the five-six years. But, it's this particular moment where we saw a sharp spike, and I think that's really what justifies this being more of a public health alert."
Person said the county falls right in step with the national trends, explaining many states have strict regulations on prescription opioids, which makes these hard substances less accessible to the public.
"So we're seeing a drop in those type of deaths, but what happens is a lot of people develop the addiction and they have to fuel it somehow," Person said. "And what winds up happening is that they get it through the illicit route. So people who produce fentanyl and opioids illicitly, or heroin. So now there's a spike in fentanyl and heroine because of that replacement."
Its epidemiology department surveys the county and after examining the collected data, the health department takes action.
"We also use that to inform our providers," Person said. "So we work closely with a collaboration here locally that involves law enforcement, EMS, all sorts of first responders, but also health providers. We give them this data to hopefully give them some intelligence to adjust their strategy or resources in a more efficient way."
For example, if many overdoses were being reported in a specific zip code, the health department will alert health care providers in that area and first responders of the increasing trend and try to funnel more resources -- like Narcan, the drug overdose reversal spray.
"The county has a stock supply in our warehouse and so we distribute that for free to the public," Person said. "Mostly working with first-responders and other health providers to help distribute that."
A new resource, Pima Helpline, is a website the county launched in May. It's an online directory that aims to help people navigate the local ways to ask for help; whether you are an addict looking for programs or a family member of an addict looking for health providers.
There are also program coordinators that visit high-risk areas and schools to educate about the dangers of hard substances.
"Unfortunately right now, we're putting out the fires. We're addressing a crisis. How do we reduce the number of people dying from this? But then long-term, we need to look at how do we treat addiction? I mean it's a really wide-spread issue that's takes the whole community really," said Person.
Pima County is also in the process of developing a media campaign with radio ads and branded posts on social media.