A surge in fentanyl-related cases has pushed the number of drug overdose deaths in Jefferson County to record highs, prompting dire warnings from health officials concerned about tainted drugs.
The number of drug overdose deaths in the Birmingham area increased to 99 in the first three months of 2021 compared to 58 the same time last year, an increase of 71 percent, said Jefferson County Chief Deputy Coroner Bill Yates. The number of overdose deaths linked to fentanyl jumped by 126 percent, he said. Fentanyl is an opioid, but it has been increasingly found in other types of drugs, including stimulants.
That poses extra dangers to drug users who haven’t been exposed to fentanyl before, said Jefferson County Health Officer Dr. Mark Wilson.
“Somebody’s first exposure to this could be their last,” Wilson said. “It could kill them. These folks, regardless of what they’re addicted to, are people we care about”
Drug overdose deaths hit record levels last year as the pandemic disrupted the drug supply and access to lifesaving overdose reversal drugs. Jefferson and Mobile counties received federal grants to more closely track drug overdoses, which enabled health officials to identify alarming overdose trends. Yates said he worries that last year was just the beginning.
“Last year, we broke records,” Yates said. “At this point, we are on pace to crush last year’s records.”
Drug overdose deaths in Jefferson County increased sharply from 2014 to 2017 before leveling off and decreasing slightly. However, overdose deaths now seem to be accelerating. Yates said the number of Black people who have died from overdoses increased 72 percent in the first quarter of 2021.
“We are seeing more fentanyl overdoses among people who do not know they are using fentanyl,” Wilson said.
There are kits available to test drugs for fentanyl, but Wilson said they are classified as paraphernalia in Alabama and illegal under state law. Users can take some steps to reduce the risk of overdose death.
Dr. Leah Leisch, medical director of Beacon Integrated Health at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, said people should never use drugs alone, avoid mixing drugs and keep doors unlocked in case first responders need to enter a building.
Naloxone, which can reverse the effects of opioids such as fentanyl, is also available at pharmacies and the Jefferson County Department of Health. Experts recommend keeping the treatment, also known as Narcan, on hand in case of emergency.
“Everyone should be aware of how to use naloxone,” Leisch said.
Yates said the increase in homicides has dominated headlines, but pales in comparison to drug-related deaths.
“The deaths are occurring in the dark, in the background and they are only getting worse,” Yates said. “The purpose of me being here is to raise the alarm and I hope I have done that.”
Pam Butler, coordinator of recovery resources for the Alabama Department of Mental Health, urged people to reach out for help. The state operates a 24-hour help line to assist people struggling with drug use. Resources are available to help those who are interested in treatment.
Butler said she struggled with addiction for a decade before she found a treatment program that worked. She urged people to consider treatment, even if it was unsuccessful in the past.
“When I hear numbers like that, I just want to reach out to the person who is using right now and say please give it a chance,” Butler said.
Click here for a list of national mental health and substance abuse resources.
24/7 Helpline: 1-844-307-1760 (Alabama Department of Mental Health)
Recovery Resource Center (Birmingham) (205) 458-3377
Alabama Department of Public Health naloxone information