Fentanyl is the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18 to 44. However, due to outdated drug testing standards in emergency rooms, fentanyl overdoses are often missed or mistreated.
A nationwide study done by Epic and the University of Maryland-College Park shows that only about five out of 100 emergency departments do a screening test for synthetic drugs like fentanyl.
Just two milligrams of fentanyl, or the equivalent of about 10-15 grains of salt, is enough to be fatal.
“We're going to continue to see an increase in use because of the drug supply — fentanyl is super cheap to make, it's easy to ship and 50 times stronger than heroin. It's just straightforward to get to people who use drugs,” said Jake Nielsen, program coordinator in substance use prevention & harm reduction for the Madison and Dane County health departments.
The use of synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, has increased dramatically in the last couple of years. CDC data shows that deaths due to fentanyl overdoses have gone up by more than 56% from 2019 to 2020. CDC data has also shown that in 2021, 107,622 Americans died of an overdose and 62% of those deaths were connected to synthetic opioids.
The reason the number of people using fentanyl and other synthetic opioids has gone up so dramatically is that many consumers purchase them unknowingly. Distributors often mix it with heroin and cocaine, increasing the effects of the drugs as well as their profit.
The standard toxicology screening test that most Emergency rooms and other health departments use was made in the 1980’s. At the same time, this screening will detect more than a dozen types of drugs including traditional opioids like cocaine and heroin. It will not detect synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
The only way medical providers can ensure that they are giving the patient the right treatment is if they know all the information beforehand. This is why having more current testing is very important.
In June of 2023, Dane County launched a program that helped distribute Narcan and fentanyl-testing kits in the five zip codes with the highest rate of death due to opioids.
In addition to the testing, the county is taking others further to help decrease overdoses, like using alerts in the community. When multiple overdoses have been reported they will alert the community so they can be more aware and help prevent death. A reason these might go out to the community is if there is a change in the drug supply or too much fentanyl or another synthetic drug was mixed into a batch causing several overdoses.
Acknowledgment is a huge factor in helping with the fentanyl crisis. The more this issue is discussed, the more commonly screen testing and other resources will be available. It’s because of a lack of awareness that outdated testing allows so many overdose victims to fall through the cracks in the emergency rooms, where they should be getting the help they need.
Danessa Sandmann from the Epic Research team said, “While these early improvements are encouraging, we collectively still have work to do to make it easier for patients and providers to screen for fentanyl and other synthetic opioids.”
[Source: The Capital Times; Madison.com; University of Maryland]