Opioids In Court

FILE - In this June 6, 2017, file photo, a reporter holds up an example of the amount of fentanyl that can be deadly after a news conference about deaths from fentanyl exposure, at DEA Headquarters in Arlington, Va. 

A record number of Delawareans lost their lives to suspected drug overdoses last month, bringing the total to 202 so far this year. 

"To have a record-setting month like this that far exceeds the next-highest month is distressing," said David Humes with the grassroots organization, aTacK addiction.

The Delaware Department of Health and Social Services (DHSS) said 39 Delawareans fatally overdosed in August, the highest number since tracking began in late 2013.  

The number shatters the previous record of 27 suspected overdose deaths in April of 2018.  

DHSS Secretary Karen Odom Walker said she suspected many of the deaths involved fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times more potent than heroin and acts much quicker to affect the central nervous system and the brain.

"I don't think it's totally unexpected with the rise of fentanyl both in Delaware and around the country, up and down the 95 corridor," said Humes.

Humes touched on national legislation that aims to stop the shipment of fentanyl from China and other places overseas.

"Several carriers such as FedEx and UPS are doing some things to try to control it to see where this stuff comes from, and my understanding is that the United StateS Postal Service will be instilling some regulations about shipments that come from overseas, to make sure they're properly inspected."

“It is heartbreaking and alarming to see so many lives lost to suspected overdoses,” said DHSS Secretary Dr. Kara Odom Walker. “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.” 

The Division of Forensic Science (DFS) cautioned the total number of overdose deaths is likely much higher because many are still pending toxicology results which can take between six and eight weeks.

Despite the uptick, Humes said he's not discouraged.  He said Delaware must continue to "turn up the heat" and make the opioid epidemic a front-burner issue. 

"I hope it's something...that's on the last thing of the minds on our activists, our elected officials, our appointed officials before they go to bed, the first thing when they wake up because that's what it's going to take to stop this thing," he said.  

Monday, Gov. Carney signed three bills into law that aim to deal with the opioid epidemic.  One piece of legislation creates the nation's first "Overdose System of Care."  Part of that system includes the creation of stabilization centers, or safe places where those who have overdosed can go to get help.  

"If we had a place where the police or EMTS could take the people after overdose, I think it would be a much better atmosphere for them; I think they'd get really humane treatment by a lot of people who understand, so maybe we could get them into treatment right away, and we could give them the observation they need through possible withdrawal so that they wouldn't have to go out and use again."

The goal is to have a stabilization center in each county in the state, complete with mental health professionals, peer counselors, and medical professionals.

"In a more comfortable situation, that would ease their anxiety.  The people in use, when I do Naloxone trainings, they tell me typically when that happens those people are ready for treatment, but the anxiety they feel, fear of the law enforcement around--not that that's necessarily founded because law enforcement has really come a long way in being progressive with their attitudes--but the people in use in the community still have that fear," said Humes.

Another new law creates a prescription monitoring program that seeks to use alternative therapies and the data sharing of health information among agencies to better determine prescribing patterns.  

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University said in a report published earlier this summer, Delaware continues to have the highest rate of all states in the country of prescribing high dosage and long-acting opioid pain relievers.  Christiana Care has also taken steps to cut opioid usage by as much as 40 percent for some medical procedures.

But addressing the root causes of drug usage have proven difficult.

"Getting at the root cause is really something we're trying to do nationally--why are so many people using and feeling the need for use, and in some instances, some people are saying that part of the root cause is a trauma that may've been suffered in their childhood that leads them to start using drugs, so it's not an easy answer," Humes told WDEL.  

Last year, more than 60 percent of Delaware's overdose deaths involved fentanyl while 40 percent involved heroin, though other substances may have attributed to those deaths, health officials noted.  

In 2017, 345 Delawareans died from overdoses, up 12 percent from 2016, according to the DFS.  

“Substance use disorder does not discriminate,” Elizabeth Romero, director of DHSS’ Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health.  Romero said. “Across the state, we’ve seen people succumb to overdoses in all three counties, men and women, from young people in their 20s to people in their 60s, and including people from the well-to-do suburbs to people who are homeless. While we are working hard in new ways to prevent addiction in the first place, it is critical that people in active use seek help for their disease. Treatment is available, providers and peers are ready to help you navigate the treatment system, and recovery is possible. The first step in recovery is to ask for help.”

If you need help:

In New Castle County, the 24/7 Crisis Services Hotline number is 1.800.652.2929. In Kent and Sussex counties, the number is 1.800.345.6785. Individuals and families also can visit the DHSS website to find addiction treatment and recovery services in Delaware or nearby states.

Delawareans are also urged to carry the overdose-reversing antidote Naloxone, if they or anyone they know is using substances.

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.

Amy Cherry is the Assistant News Director and an investigative journalist at WDEL. She joined WDEL's award-winning news team in 2010 from WBZ Newsradio 1030 in Boston and has received national accolades for reporting.