A record number of people died in Delaware from suspected overdoses in August, according to reports from the Delaware Division of Forensic Science.
The monthly total of 39 deaths was the highest since the Department of Health and Social Services began tracking deaths from suspected overdoses in 2013. The previous high monthly total was 27 deaths, which occurred in April 2018.
"It is heartbreaking and alarming to see so many lives lost to suspected overdoses," said DHSS Secretary Kara Odom Walker, a board-certified family physician. "We suspect that many of the overdoses involved fentanyl so we are warning people who are in active use to assume that the illicit drugs they are using contain this highly toxic and dangerous synthetic opioid. Any use of such a substance could kill them."
Fentanyl is up to 50 to 100 times more potent than heroin.
If a user ingested fentanyl or a drug laced with fentanyl, time is critical because the opioid affects the central nervous system and the brain. Users can have trouble breathing or can stop breathing as the drug sedates them. If someone is too drowsy to answer questions, is having difficulty breathing or appears to be in a deep sleep that they cannot be awakened, call 911. Under Delaware's 911/Good Samaritan Law, people who call 911 to report an overdose and the person in medical distress cannot be arrested for low-level drug crimes.
In 2017, about 61 percent of the overdose deaths in Delaware involved fentanyl and 40 percent involved heroin.
As of Sept. 8, the Division of Forensic Science reported 202 deaths from suspected overdoses in Delaware this year. Because there is a lag of six to eight weeks for toxicology analyses to be finished at DFS, the total number of deaths could be higher. In 2017, 345 people died in Delaware from overdoses, up 12 percent from 2016, according to DFS.
Elizabeth Romero, director of DHSS' Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, encouraged individuals in active substance use in Delaware to see a medical provider immediately, ask police or other first responders for help or to call DHSS' 24/7 crisis services hotline to be connected to trained crisis professionals who can discuss treatment options.
In New Castle County, the 24/7 crisis services hotline number is 800-652-2929. In Kent and Sussex counties, the number is 800-345-6785. Individuals and families also can visit helpisherede.com to find addiction treatment and recovery services in Delaware or nearby states.
Naloxone is available at many Delaware pharmacies without a prescription, or by attending community trainings through Brandywine Counseling and Community Services or through atTAcK addiction, which is able to conduct trainings through a BluePrints for the Community Highmark grant. Brandywine Counseling's next community training is at 6 p.m. Sept. 19 at Bethel United Methodist in Lewes, in coordination with atTAcK addiction's Sussex County chapter.
Naloxone, the overdose-reversing medication carried in Delaware by community members, paramedics, some police officers and other first responders, can be administered in overdoses involving opioids — fentanyl, heroin or opioid painkillers. Because fentanyl is more potent than heroin or opioid painkillers, multiple doses of naloxone may be needed to reverse an overdose. In 2017, Delaware paramedics and police officers administered naloxone 2,714 times in suspected overdose situations to a total of 1,906 patients.