Health experts and community leaders are engaging Hawaiʻi Island residents on the growing dangers of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.
On Tuesday, Feb. 22, the West Hawaiʻi Community Health Center, in partnership with Hawaiʻi County, hosted its first Fentanyl Awareness Summit in Kailua-Kona that brought together a panel of experts from various sectors, local and state, to address the opioid crisis.
In 2021, 14 kilograms of fentanyl was seized in Hawaiʻi County. Experts say it takes only 2 milligrams of the synthetic drug to be fatal. That same year, the Department of Health reported EMS treated 78 possible fentanyl-related overdoses. By the end of 2021, Hawaiʻi Police Lt. Edwin Buyten confirmed to Big Island Now that there was an uptick in fentanyl-related investigations.
“The fentanyl tsunami is coming and we need to be prepared for it,” said Alysa Lavoie, WHCHC Behavioral Health Programs manager, during Tuesday’s summit.
Approximately 155 people streamed the summit online and about two dozen questions were submitted to panelists during the event. Mayor Mitch Roth kicked off the inaugural event with remarks. He said the topic being discussed was important.
“We need to act,” Roth said. “If we don’t do something, we’re going to to continue to lose people to overdoses.”
Richard Taaffe, CEO of WHCHC, said opioids and addictions are huge problems that the health clinic sees every day.
“This is about community and making a difference in the live of those in the community,” Taaffe said. “We have an opportunity today to get ahead of this. Fentanyl kills, bottom line. It hurts people in the schools, unknowingly. We’ve got to work together and we will make a difference.”
Panelist Dr. Kevin Kunz, from WHCHC, said fentanyl was first synthesized in 1961 and is prescribed by doctors for pain treatment in hospitals and end-of-life pain management. The drug used by doctors comes in a patch form. Kunz said the fentanyl being found on the streets is illegally made.
“Street fentanyl is powder form that is pressed into a pill that looks like Xanax, hydrocodone and oxycodone,” he said. “Someone could take this drug and never wake up.”
The opioid is also being mixed with other drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. Panelists said it’s entirely possible for fentanyl to also be laced into marijuana.
Panelist Dr. Dan Galanis with the Department of Health said there has been an increase in fatal overdoses from illicit opioids statewide during the past three years. Additionally, EMS is reporting an uptick in the use of naloxone, also known as Narcan. The medication is used to revive those who overdose.
Panelist Capt. Chris Honda with the Hawaiʻi Fire Department said they administer about 200 doses per year; however, he thinks more doses are being administered.
Lokahi Treatment Center’s Lead Counselor Verna Chartrand, also known as Aunty Verna, said she’s had clients report seeing fentanyl on the streets and others telling her they’ve been revived from an overdose with naloxone.
“It’s crazy out there,” Chartrand said. “Clients are taking meth not knowing fentanyl is in it. Someone can get off meth, but with fentanyl they’re having a hard time. They need more help than I can give them.”
The Men of Paʻa, an ʻaina-based recovery program, also had a seat on the panel. Founder Iopa Maunakea and participant Carlos Bellotto talked about the importance of recovery, restoration and reconciliation.
Bellotto also shared his recovery journey and his experience with fentanyl. When he was still battling his addiction, Bellotto said, he overdosed at least six times. Click here to read his full story.
Community leaders hope to continue this conversation about the battle against fentanyl. WHCHC will host a Zoom meeting March 4 to talk about a task force.
“We’re just going to work together to come up with solutions,” Lavoie said. “My hope is that people understand what this is about and the community joins in and finds solutions.”