By Kaitlin Murphy | [email protected]
Joint efforts around the City of Alexandria are underway to combat the opioid epidemic affecting students in our community in the wake of several recent overdoses.
As the Times reported last week, one student at Alexandria City High School overdosed and received administration of Narcan by emergency responders while at school. Another student, Yonatan Vazquez Méndez, died on May 2 after going into cardiac arrest at his home. As of press time, the cause of death has not been confirmed pending the medical examiner’s ruling. In February of this year, a student from neighboring Wakefield High School in Arlington suffered a fatal overdose.
As of Sunday, the APD has reported 34 overdoses citywide in 2023. Deaths caused by narcotics require a chief medical examiner ruling, which tends to take more than four months so the number is subject to change. In comparison, from Jan. 1, 2022 to May 7, 2022 there were 49 reported overdoses which included confirmed fatalities. The calendar year 2022 had a total of 106 overdoses reported to APD.
The City of Alexandria asked the community to be vigilant about the dangers of illicit drugs in an announcement sent out on May 3 following the two suspected drug overdoses involving school-aged youth last week.
“Illicit drugs are often laced with fentanyl, an inexpensive substitute that is up to 100 times more potent than morphine and can be deadly,” the statement read. “City officials are asking for the public’s help in understanding the prevalence of fentanyl overdoses; how they can be prevented, recognized and treated; as well as speaking with people, especially youth, regarding the dangers of all illicit drugs.”
Parents and other residents are demanding action to combat the presence of Fentanyl in schools and communities in Alexandria.
On April 19, ACHS teamed up with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration Diversion Program and the Office of Student Support Teams for a community event addressing rampant substance abuse.
The dangers of substance abuse, especially prescription opioids and Fentanyl, were shared by DEA Special Agent Jennifer Sweeden during the event at ACHS. Sweeden re- ported that 295 people die every day in the U.S. because of an opioid overdose.
Fentanyl is a fully synthetic lab copy of what is found in opioid plants. The drug is cheaper and easier to make and has a much stronger concentration.
The current DEA campaign battling the epidemic is “One Pill Can Kill.”
The collaboration between schools, agencies, local health departments and police is aimed at educating the public on how to fight and treat the opioid epidemic. According to the DEA, prescription drugs are abused more often than cocaine, heroin, methamphetamine and ecstasy combined.
The opioids in prescription pain medications become misused when more than the intended dose is taken or when an individual takes someone else’s medication without a prescription.
Death can result from abusing prescription drugs or from ingesting “fake” pills laced with Fentanyl. Fake pills are on the market and are made to look like prescription opioids. These pills are manufactured illicitly by unregulated sources rather than pharmaceutical companies.
According to the DEA, six out of 10 Fentanyl-laced fake prescription pills now contain a potentially lethal dose of Fentanyl. The fake pills look and feel just like prescription opioids.
Recently, there has been an uptick in the use of little blue pills, known on the street as M30’s or Perc30’s, among younger people. These pills are present in Alexandria and neighboring cities. According to reports, these pills are being found on the scene of many of the area’s recent overdose cases.
“The more you know, the more you can help others, the more you can help yourself. This is relevant for everyone,” Sweeden said. “The only medicines that are safe are those from medical doctors and should be taken in small doses.”
Emily Bentley, the director of opioid response for the City of Alexandria, said the city has data on 2023 overdoses, but the data is incomplete.
“Since January of 2023, there have been 28 overdoses, and nine have been under age 18. One overdose was as young as 12. And we don’t have a full juvenile data set,” Bentley said.
In addition to these efforts, current strategic initiatives are planned to battle the opioid epidemic, particularly the use of non-prescription “street pills.” Education on the opioid crisis and expanding treatment options for those addicted are part of this initiative.
Too many opioids in the system cause the brain to shut down, dropping heart rate, breathing and lowering body temperature. Fentanyl is the key player in overdoses. In case of an overdose, quick access to Narcan can save a life.
Narcan is administered as a fast-acting nasal spray. This application can pause opioids from the brain receptors and revive the patient until further medical treatment can be rendered. Narcan administration can create a 30-to-40-minute window which allows time for proper medical attention.
ACPS has supplied city schools with Narcan, according to ACPS Media Relations Specialist Issmar Venture.
“Narcan supplies are readily available and there is ongoing training for ACPS nurses, staff and administration,” Venture said.
In fact, the Times reported last week in “ACHS student receives Narcan” that it was one of the police officers, also called SROs, at ACHS who administered Narcan to a female student who had overdosed and was turning blue, according to openmhz.com.
Programs from other agencies are also actively underway.
The Opioid Work Group is composed of city staff and community partners in response to the city’s opioid crisis. OWG coordinates and oversees work that the city does in response to the impact of opioid use in our community and in our schools.
The OWG partners with Alexandria to distribute Narcan at no cost to city residents.
Following an increase in juvenile overdoses in April 2022, the Alexandria Police Department added a category of 18 and under to their data set for overdoses.
Communities throughout the region including the neighboring counties of Fairfax, Arlington, Prince William and Loudoun have experienced a similar rise in overdoses. The region has an opioid response network that shares data on a variety of issues.
Due to the porous nature of the city and county borders, there is a daily system of providing real-time information to each neighboring department. With this system, communities are better prepared and on higher alert for incidents affecting city residents or students.
Bentley has been assisting ACPS with Narcan training for all school nurses, teachers, administrators, coaches and health and physical education teachers.
The Alexandria Health Department has a partnership with the teen wellness center located inside ACHS to prevent and treat opioid-related incidents. The AHD has provided ACHS with backpacks containing fentanyl test trips, Narcan, information on treatment and how to administer the tests. And the teen wellness center distributes these bags to anyone who requests one.
“One way to reach the youth is with Narcan. It is for use as a first aid approach in case we are in the right place at the right time. It is good to have this skill to save a life. That is our hope with Narcan. To keep our community safe,” Bentley said. “[My team] works hard to push Narcan across the city as a preventative measure to keep people safer.”
APD or other first responders who administer Narcan on the scene send the incident information to the opioid outreach coordinator. Support and information for recovery services are provided and data is collected in real-time to help connect to treatment options for patients following treatment.
Narcan also serves as a diagnostic tool to determine if an opioid is involved in a potential overdose. If Narcan is administered and there is no response, next steps are then taken in the diagnosis and treatment of individuals.
The OWG has provided multiple training opportunities to public and private schools. The message from OWG is the same at every school.
“Safety measures in place with medical treatment, prevention, and education to all youth in the city will provide them with the skills to go out into the world and make good decisions,” Bentley said. Bentley warned that the landscape has shifted and it’s no longer a narrow segment of people who are at danger from an overdose.
“The current outreach and workshops are to help the community make the mental shift on ways to think about long term chronic sub- stance abuse. The message has changed so much with the introduction of Fentanyl and substance abuse. Someone is equally at risk for an overdose with their first pill or their thousandth pill,” Bentley said.
In an initiative to address the opioid crisis on a national level, the Federal Drug Administration recently voted to make Narcan an over-the-counter medication as early as this coming July. By removing the barriers to attaining Narcan, the lifesaving drug will move to store shelves and be identified by the generic name Naloxone.
Closer to home, a youth-focused 12-step meeting launched six weeks ago in partnership with the County of Arlington. No sign-up is required. Youth are invited to the Fairlington Community Center on Thursdays to speak with their peers about issues with drugs. They also receive support for treatment.
During the youth meeting and in a room at the same location, parents meet to seek support. They are given a chance to share their story with other struggling families and to learn more about resources available to them and to their children.
“The overall goal is to raise education about substance abuse. Get parents talking to their children early and often so people feel empowered to talk about this at home. Children feel this subject is familiar to them and they have practice on what to say,” Bentley said.