Fentanyl, Heroin Overdoses in San Francisco More Than Doubled in 2019

By Victor Westerkamp

The San Franciso medical examiner’s office sounded an alarm on Wednesday as the number of deaths caused by fentanyl and heroin overdoses has more than doubled in 2019.

“We had a feeling through the year that we were seeing more and more deaths, but this is really quite staggering,” Dr. Luke Rodda, the chief forensic toxicologist for the medical examiner’s office, told the San Francisco Chronicle.

Fentanyl, a synthetic painkiller 100 times more potent than morphine, is the main culprit. The number of fentanyl overdose-related deaths was 234 according to the estimate; a more than two-and-a-half times increase compared to 2018 when 90 people died of the drug.

Homeless people in Tenderloin District
Sleeping people, discarded clothes and used needles are seen on a street in the Tenderloin neighborhood in San Francisco on July 25, 2019. (Janie Har/AP Photo)

The combined number of overdose fatalities caused by fentanyl, heroin, or a combination of the two has skyrocketed over the last decade in the Golden City. Increasing from a modest 25 deaths of the two combined in 2009 to a mind-boggling 290 deaths in 2019—that’s up 116 percent compared to the 2018 number when 134 people died of the two drugs combined.

“It’s important to be accurate and timely,” Rodda said. “We didn’t want to wait six months. That’s good for reports, but not public awareness.”

Rodda and others are advocating more stringent screening and more frequent reporting on the number of fatal overdoses in the Bay City, to keep a closer eye on the number of casualties allowing swifter action.

“When there’s these sort of increased overdose trends, we need to know immediately so we can respond and prevent loss of life,” Department of Public Health Supervisor Matt Haney said, the Chronicle reported.

Haney, who oversees the Tenderloin and South of Market districts where homelessness, drug abuse, and prostitution are a way of life, has also urged for more frequent reporting on the opioid death toll in the city. He currently has a motion before the board of governors to release statistics every month.

“It’s devastating. It’s awful. It’s the most deadly epidemic that we’ve seen in our city since the HIV/AIDS crisis was killing thousands of people,” Haney told the newspaper. “It is painful that this is not something being talked about every day at City Hall.”

The Department of Public Health, which reports to the state shared similar concerns in a statement on Wednesday, saying it too is extremely concerned about the spike in overdose fatalities and is taking aggressive action to counter the problems, KRON4 reported.

“It’s discouraging to see this happen, and alarming,” Daniel Ciccarone, a UCSF professor who specializes in drug use policy, told the Chronicle.

“Fentanyl’s not going away. We have to learn to adapt to it,” Ciccarone said. “In other cities, it’s being used to adulterate heroin. Here, for some people, it’s a drug of choice.”