The Board of Supervisors approved on Tuesday formation of a multi-agency committee that will be tasked with developing strategies to deter use of the potentially lethal synthetic opioid fentanyl, which has claimed hundreds of lives in Riverside County.
“This drug is off the charts as far as opioids go,” board Chair Karen Spiegel said. “We need to work as a team to bring some stoppage to this escalating issue.”
The committee will be comprised of more than a half-dozen agencies, including the county’s Emergency Management, Probation, Sheriff’s and Public Social Services departments and the District Attorney’s Office.
District Attorney Mike Hestrin and Sheriff Chad Bianco announced in February that they would be working closely to crack down on fentanyl suppliers and prosecute cases involving drug-related fatalities.
The committee is a spin-off of that effort and will be broader in scope, involving community activists and municipalities to spread the message that the county is serious about preventing fentanyl distribution and consumption.
The drug is manufactured in China and smuggled across the Mexican border, according to Bianco.
It is known to be 80-100 times more potent than morphine and is a popular additive, seamlessly mixed into any number of narcotics and pharmaceuticals.
“It only takes two milligrams of fentanyl to have potentially lethal consequences for most people,” according to a statement posted by Spiegel to the board’s agenda. “To put that in perspective, it takes 5,000 milligrams to make a teaspoon.”
“We’re on pace to see 450-500 fentanyl deaths in the county in 2021,” Hestrin told the board. “It’s getting worse. Obviously, we need to act.”
Hestrin said the number of deaths has doubled every year since 2015, and in that time, there has been an overall 800% increase in fentanyl-related overdose fatalities.
Five people have been charged so far this year with second-degree murder in connection with fentanyl-related overdoses, according to the county’s top prosecutor.
“Of course, that’s after the fact, after a family has lost someone,” Hestrin said. “We’ll do what we can to get justice for that family. But we’ve got to stop the number of families losing loved ones to this scourge.”
He lauded the prospect of using billboards, internet and broadcast public service announcements, as well as other measures, to promote the anti- fentanyl campaign.
“We’ve got to do something to get in front of this,” Hestrin told the board.
Spiegel said it was important for “all of us to step in and be actively involved.”
In addition to spotlighting anti-fentanyl messages, the committee will work on expanding training programs that turn some residents into first responders during overdose episodes, where every second counts in resuscitating a victim.
The county Department of Public Health has partnered with the nonprofit Inland Harm Reduction to offer “bystander naloxone training.”
Naloxone is a opioid antagonist that, when administered to an overdose victim, can restore breathing capacity. But it has to be given without delay. Many sheriff’s deputies have already been equipped with it for use in the field.
According to Spiegel, one of the new committee’s missions will be seeking federal and state grants to assist with “harm reduction efforts” and pay for public awareness campaigns about the dangers of the drug.
The committee will be required to submit quarterly progress reports to the board.