The San Francisco Department of Public Health announced on Monday that 84 drug overdose deaths were recorded in August, tying the monthly record of January 2023 as the deadliest drug overdose month in city history.
For over a decade, fentanyl, an FDA approved synthetic opioid pain reliever and anesthetic that is also up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, has ravaged cities and town across the US because of severe abuse. San Francisco in particular has been severely affected in recent years, with 519 fentanyl related overdose deaths coming in 2020 alone, 73% of the total 725 overdose deaths being reported that year.
Policies under former District Attorney Chesa Boudin to limit prosecutions, a worsening economic situation, and a growing law enforcement shortage situation in the city made the problem go from bad to worse since 2020. A huge rise in overdoses was recorded, as was a new record number of drug-related deaths in the city.
Even after Boudin was recalled last year, and new DA Brooke Jenkins bringing back more accountability for drug dealers, fentanyl death rates still rose. Meanwhile, pharmaceutical companies and pharmacy chains began paying record amounts to the city for their roles in the fentanyl crisis. This included $24.8 million being paid by Teva Pharmaceuticals and $230 million being paid by Walgreens.
This led to 2023, where the combination of problems soon brought on fentanyl related deaths at a record pace. In the first three months of 2023, 200 fentanyl-related deaths were recorded, a huge jump from 142 deaths in 2022. In January alone, 84 drug overdose deaths were recorded. Last month, the SF Department of Public Health announced that 473 people have died of accidental overdoses so far in the year, with 74 coming in July alone and 385 of the overdoses being caused by fentanyl. Officials also noted that, at the current pace, the city was likely to break the 2020 725 overdose death figure.
84 overdose deaths in SF in August
“It pains me to share that this is the highest overdose deaths San Francisco has experienced and it correlates with this overtake of fentanyl into our drug supply,” said San Francisco Public Health Director Dr. Grant Colfax last month. “80% of those overdose deaths are the result of fentanyl, which has become cheaper, more potent and more available. When it was first introduced, people were mixing it with other drugs, but now more drug users are opting for Fentanyl alone.”
While many health officials were hopeful that that could be averted by a tapering off of deaths and new programs in the city working, those hopes were dashed on Monday with the city announcing that the number of deaths only increased in August, going from 74 to 84 and setting the new overdose death estimate for the year at 845. The trend of fentanyl deaths also continued, with 66 of the 84 involving the synthetic drug. In addition, the 84 overdose deaths tied the monthly overdose record in the city, sharing it with the January 2023 overdose death amount.
“It is a tragedy that is unfolding every day. We had nearly three deaths a day in August in San Francisco due to overdoses, at least 80% of which based on prior data we know are due to fentanyl,” Colfax said on Monday. “The key things we want people to understand is that recovery is possible, treatment is available from a number of sites across the city, that we have evidence-based treatments and that we are doing everything we can to prevent more overdose deaths.”
SF Director of Behavioral Health Hillary Kunins also said on Monday that the city is expanding outreach and also new programs focusing on overdose deaths.
“This year, we have passed out more than 73,000 Naloxone doses,” Kunins said. “This life-saving medication is being routinely distributed in high-risk settings where people are vulnerable to overdose including during our street care outreach, and in our outreach to encampments in the city, in the lobby of our jail, in treatment centers, and in permanent supportive housing.”
Despite the increased awareness and effort by the city, as well as charities and other groups, in addressing the drug and overdose problem, many who deal directly with the problem in the city have said that those programs have done nothing to help the overall situation.
“We lost 84 this month,” said Harmony Smith, who runs a support group for addicts in San Francisco. “That’s like sending a few buses off the Bay Bridge. Yet no one is blinking an eye at this.
“It does mostly affect the homeless and lower income people, but fentanyl is a big problem everywhere, so it does, overall, affect everyone. The city it seems like each week is saying ‘Oh, we’ll do this’ or ‘Oh, here is a new program’ but it does nothing. The only program we have seen a real change with is more Narcan being made available.”
“Fentanyl needs to be addressed more directly and the city needs to get to people at the street level and offer treatment. But that is hard because a lot of people take drugs to escape the situation they are in. And look where the city is in. High homelessness, not enough good paying jobs, not enough affordable housing, a huge crime problem, and fewer and fewer opportunities. Of course there is going to be a drug problem, and until some of the other problems are addressed, San Francisco can keep putting out all these programs but are not going to alleviate the high number of overdoses.”
“I said last month that we would see a new record, and we did. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised to see another one. Oh, and final thought. These are just the reported overdose deaths. Bodies are sometimes found months after the fact, if at all. Who knows what the real number is.”
Statistics for September will likely come out this time next month.
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