Overdose deaths attributed to the synthetic opioid fentanyl skyrocketed in Los Angeles County over a five-year period ending in 2021, with such fatalities increasing by 1,280%, according to report released Tuesday by the county Department of Public Health.
Meanwhile, the L.A. County District Attorney’s Office and the health department, in a joint statement, announced Tuesday the creation of a working group that will address the fentanyl crisis “through prevention, education and enforcement.”
The health department report found that there were 109 deaths attributed to fentanyl overdose in the county in 2016 — but that number ballooned to 1,504 in 2021. Between 2016 and 2020, visits to hospital emergency rooms due to fentanyl overdoses increased by 308%, going from 133 to 542.
While white residents accounted for the most overdose deaths last year, Black residents had the highest rate of deaths based on the population, at 30.6 per 100,000 residents. The rate of white residents dying from fentanyl overdoses was 22.5 per 100,000 residents, while Latino/a residents had a rate of 11.1 per 100,000 residents.
Fentanyl overdose deaths also occurred at a much higher rate in less affluent areas — 38.4 per 100,000 residents — than in more affluent areas, at 12.3 per 100,000 residents.
“Fentanyl overdoses are a significant and growing public health problem across the United States and in LAC, across sociodemographic groups and geographic areas,” according to the report.
“The increases among youth and the widening inequities between under-resourced and more affluent groups underscore the need to target prevention efforts to those at highest risk to decrease fentanyl overdoses and advance health equity in LAC.”
In announcing his office’s partnership with the health department on the working group to address the crisis, L.A. County DA George GascÃ³n called the proliferation of fentanyl-related deaths “one of the gravest challenges of our times.”
“We are bringing together the county’s public health experts, education leaders, community advocates and law enforcement professionals to support and utilize evidence-based and effective approaches to stopping the toll fentanyl is taking,” GascÃ³n said in a statement.
“This multifaceted approach is necessary because if the failed `War on Drugs’ of the ’90s has taught us one thing, it is that we cannot incarcerate our way out of a public health issue. Enforcement is not enough. Saving lives is the priority when addressing substance abuse and illicit drug use, as only the living have the opportunity to recover. This is a community-wide problem and will take collaboration among all of us to stem the tide of harm that is plaguing our neighborhoods.”
Joining the DA’s Office and the health department in the working group will be the LAPD, L.A. County Office of Education, the L.A. Unified School District, the L.A. School Police Department, the L.A. County Police Chiefs Association, the Drug Policy Alliance and school districts throughout the county, the DA and health department said in their joint statement.
“As our data indicates, the tragedies resulting from fentanyl are indiscriminately impacting all populations regardless of age, race, ethnicity or socioeconomic status,” county Health Director Barbara Ferrer said.
“Fentanyl’s reach is unfortunately broad, calling for a similarly broad approach to address the crisis. I am grateful for this opportunity to work in collaboration with people from many different sectors to address this important public health issue.”