PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) – Fentanyl is a big reason why drug overdose deaths more than doubled in Oregon between 2019 and 2021 — and the trend is continuing in 2022, according to a data analysis released by the Oregon Health Authority on Thursday.

In the last two and a half years, fentanyl has become a leading cause of overdose deaths, particularly among drug users who don’t have access to services that help keep them alive and healthy. 

These fentanyl overdoses have resulted in urgent requests for more naloxone, the rescue drug that rapidly reverses opioid overdoses. 

“We encourage everyone in Oregon to educate themselves and their loved ones—including young people—about the importance of naloxone, how to use it in an overdose emergency, and where people can access it,” said Dr. Dean Sidelinger, the state epidemiologist at OHA. 

Fentanyl is a powerful synthetic opioid. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration said it is 80-100 times stronger than morphine

The DEA says criminal drug networks are mass-producing fake pills and falsely marketing them as legitimate prescription pills. These fake pills often contain fentanyl or methamphetamine and can be deadly. 

The OHA analysis found that in 2021, nearly a third of Oregon’s counties saw more people die from fentanyl overdose than overdose from any other drug. 

Unintentional or undetermined fentanyl overdose deaths jumped more than 600% between 2019 and 2021, from 71 to 509. Of unintentional or undetermined drug overdose deaths in 2021, 47.5% were due to fentanyl. 

“While exact reasons for the overdose increases are unknown, public health officials have long suspected that disruptions to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic have been a factor,” OHA wrote in a press release. “Those with substance use disorder have been hit particularly hard by job losses, school closures and social isolation resulting from restrictions put in place to limit exposure and transmission of the virus.” 

Sidelinger said the pandemic interrupted the ways people with substance use disorder can get help and mental health services. 

Health officials also said fentanyl has become more available in Oregon over the last two years, which has also contributed to the increased number of overdoses. 

OHA reminds people that an overdose is always a medical emergency. People should call 911 immediately, even after administering naloxone. It sometimes takes multiple doses of naloxone to reverse an overdose. 

People taking prescription opioids are also encouraged to ask their health care provider for a naloxone prescription. 

OHA is issuing the following warnings to people who use drugs:

  • Unless a pharmacist directly hands you a prescription pill, assume it is counterfeit and contains fentanyl.
  • Assume any pills obtained from social media, the internet or a friend are counterfeit and contain fentanyl.
  • If you are using pills, don’t use alone and always have naloxone on hand and visible.
  • Test your drugs with fentanyl test strips before you use them. Fentanyl test strips can often be accessed at local harm-reduction sites.

The Oregon Health Authority has more information about the steps it’s taking to reduce drug overdose deaths on its website. Those who need help to stop using opioids can also find a list of resources on OHA’s website.