Sheriff’s Project Opioid continues as overdose deaths increase

File photo by Jayson Mellom
REVERSAL RATES: According to the Sheriff’s Office, the 10 percent reduction in fentanyl-related deaths—70 from January to June 2022 compared to 63 in the same time frame for 2023—is likely due to the widespread availability of the opioid antagonist naloxone hydrochloride.

There were 118 opioid overdose deaths from Jan. 1 to July 31 in Santa Barbara County this year, with 63 related to fentanyl—an opiate 50 times more potent than heroin—according to the Sheriff’s Office. This compares to 105 overdose deaths during the same period in 2022, with 70 related to fentanyl. 

“These numbers reflect the exponential growth in overdose deaths generally, and fentanyl-related deaths specifically,” Sheriff’s Officials said in a statement. “Of note, in the 2020 calendar year there were 113 overdose deaths, with 37 related to fentanyl.” 

The Sheriff’s Office announced on Aug. 21, National Fentanyl Prevention and Awareness Day, that it is continuing with Project Opioid—a coalition of community leaders and elected officials working to address the opioid crisis. 

Along with bringing community leaders together, Project Opioid launched the Narcan Distribution Project where residents can pick up naloxone hydrochloride (commonly known as Narcan)—a medication that reverses an opioid overdose’s effects—for free at any Sheriff’s patrol stations throughout the county, no questions asked, according to the Sheriff’s Office. Since the program’s launch about six months ago, the office has distributed more than 1,790 doses to community members. 

“Narcan is a harmless yet miraculous drug that reverses the often-lethal effects of an opioid overdose. Simply put, it’s easy to use, and it saves lives,” Sheriff Bill Brown said in a statement. “Making more Narcan available to community members will help us lower the unacceptably high rate of overdose deaths that is prevalent in our community and across the nation.”

Along with making Narcan widely available, Brown said in a 2022 interview when he first launched the coalition, that he wanted to see about 60 to 70 leaders participate, find a direct source of funding, and hire a full-time executive director to run Project Opioid. Brown told the Sun on Aug. 22 that Project Opioid still has no direct source of funding and no staff specifically dedicated to this project, but he’s hoping that the Board of Supervisors will allocate some opioid settlement funds to Project Opioid when it goes before the board, potentially in November. 

“The county is in the midst of determining how its litigation monies are going to be distributed, and we’re going to be asking for some of those to see if we can get somebody to be a full-time advocate for what we are trying to do at Project Opioid and get the message out to everyone,” Brown said. 

About 20 community leaders meet on a monthly basis to discuss and implement education and prevention programs, including working with school districts to distribute information and provide presentations to students. The organization also launched the Santa Barbara County Project Opioid website that provides a list of resources for those impacted by substance use, he added. 

“There’s a few sectors we’d like to see more people from, but it’s not just to get a huge mass together. It’s to get leaders together to come up with policy direction and a coordinated approach between disciplines. It’s more of a think tank or strategy-developing organization and not so much a grassroots organization where we’re trying to get a huge number of people involved,” Brown said. 

Pacific Pride Foundation Executive Director Kristen Flickinger told the Sun that she likes that all of the decision makers are brought to the table to discuss the opioid epidemic and can gain an understanding of the network around opioid response, overdose prevention, and other services. 

Pacific Pride Foundation is the partner that distributes naloxone and provides trainings to county agencies and the general public, and it runs the county’s only syringe exchange program—which is designed to meet people who use drugs where they’re at by providing sterile syringes, a safe disposal site, and access to naloxone, she said.

The nonprofit distributed more than 10,000 fentanyl testing strips—which test substances for fentanyl—and saw the demand for naloxone increase throughout the year, with 176 doses distributed in January and 370 doses distributed in June, according to Pacific Pride’s 2022-23 fiscal year data. 

“We are increasing the number of doses distributed, partially because we have four locations we are distributing on a regular basis in addition to working with other organizations, getting them trained, and getting them more naloxone,” Flickinger said. 

At the state level, California approved a $61 million investment in harm reduction programs for four years—a follow-up to the 2019 California Harm Reduction Initiative Grant that was set to expire in September. While Pacific Pride’s syringe exchange program won’t be impacted because it relies on the county for its naloxone distribution and private donors to help run the syringe exchange, Flickinger said this is a positive shift. 

“It’s hard to find harm reduction funding. The state has been on the forefront of recognizing the importance of harm reduction work and should be applauded for that,” she said. “It will allow organizations that urgently need this funding to continue to exist and provide good services to people who need it.”  

Moving forward, Flickinger said she hopes to see additional funding toward Pacific Pride’s syringe exchange program, which would enable it to hire additional staff, conduct more outreach, and be more visible in the community. 

“If we have additional staff, we can provide additional days. We’d like to be in Santa Barbara, Santa Maria, Lompoc, and Isla Vista every week, that’s our goal,” she said. “We still meet significant resistance in the county, often areas of the county that need us the most.” 

Santa Maria nonprofit Let’s Make a Difference and other local syringe exchange programs will also honor lives lost through International Overdose Awareness Day on Aug. 31. Santa Maria nonprofit Let’s Make a Difference’s fundraiser on Aug. 31 will be at Pioneer Park—1150 E. Foster Road—from noon to 3 p.m. 

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