In May, Hawai’i County created a Fentanyl Task Force to deal with the growing epidemic of overdose deaths from the super deadly drug that is plaguing the nation and claimed the lives of at least seven people on the Big Island in 2021.
Illicit fentanyl is so dangerous because it is 50 times more deadly than heroin. Just a tiny amount of fentanyl, as little as two milligrams (about one grain of Hawaiian salt) can be fatal in a non-opioid-tolerant person.
This is why fentanyl is disproportionately claiming the lives of teenagers and young adults around the country.
In the past two months on the Big Island, there have been one confirmed overdose death and two suspected overdose deaths of young victims: a 20-year-old male, an 18-year-old male and a juvenile female teen, said Hawaiʻi Police Department Capt. Thomas Shopay, a member of the fentanyl task force.
On Sept. 23, an 18-year-old male and 20-year-old male were found dead in the Puna District. The autopsy results of the teenager listed the manner of death as accidental, with toxicology results showing his cause of death to be acute intoxication with fentanyl and ethanol. An autopsy report is still pending on the 20-year-old, according to police.
On Oct. 25, a juvenile female teen in the Kona District was found dead. Police didn’t specify her age. While the toxicology report is still pending, police suspect drugs to be the cause.
Hawai‘i County had 32 drug-related deaths in 2021, with seven of the fatalities connected specifically to fentanyl, according to Hawaiʻi’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area 2021 report.
One of those fentanyl-related deaths was a 14-year-old who had been snorting a substance on the social media app, Tik Tok.
“This drug [fentanyl] is way more dangerous than anything else we’ve encountered in recent years,” said Det. Jesse Kerr, with Hawaiʻi Police Department’s Area I Vice Section.
Dr. Kevin Kunz, a physician at Hawaiʻi Island Community Health Center and a member of the fentanyl task force, said the numbers in the report provide an inkling that the Big Island is in trouble.
While the report shows most of the overdose deaths are related to methamphetamine, Dr. Kunz explained that people using the stimulant are long-time abusers of the drug, between the ages of 45-64 and are typically dying from heart failure as a result of chronic use. People dying of fentanyl are typically in their teens and 20s.
There now is no central database on the Big Island that is tracking the overdose deaths of young people, but the task force is working on it.
“We are working closely with the Hawai‘i County police and fire departments to cross-validate what we are hearing on the streets with the medical examiner’s report so that we can provide the most accurate picture of the current condition of this fentanyl epidemic,” task force leader Kimo Alameda said.
News of the recent young deaths comes after the release of Hawaiʻi’s High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area 2021 report of overdose deaths statewide. The report indicates that overall drug-related deaths in Hawaiʻi increased from 265 deaths in 2020 to 305 deaths in 2021.
“The fentanyl trend is dramatically increasing in 2022, with at least 17 fentanyl overdose deaths in Honolulu alone,” the report said.
Opioid-related deaths involving fentanyl have increased 33% from 2021, and the number is growing.
Dr. Kunz said medical professionals and police started to see fentanyl in meth last year. And, most people between the ages of 10 and 80 are polysubstance users, meaning they are taking a variety of drugs at the same time.
Data provided by the Hawaiʻi State Department of Health stated there were 134 EMS calls on the Big Island from April to September in which naloxone — a nasal spray that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose — was administered. Most of the calls occurred in the Puna District.
Dr. Dan Galanis with the Department of Health provided data that showed ambulance responses to non-fatal overdoses statewide between October 2021 to September 2022 included 91 total fentanyl or heroin overdoses: 58% heroin, 37% fentanyl and 4% involving both substances.
“In the last four months, there’s been an average of 5 overdoses related to fentanyl statewide,” Galanis said. “Before that, it was one to three per month.”
Hawai‘i is now experiencing the anticipated trend of counterfeit opioid pills (fentanyl-laced), coinciding with an increasing number of fentanyl related deaths from 28 in 2020 to 48 in 2021, according to the report.
From July to September, Hawai‘i has experienced a spike in suspected fentanyl-related fatalities, as well as non-fatal overdoses.
Hawai‘i Island Police also are seeing a rise in fentanyl-related arrests. In October, 12 people — six in West Hawai‘i and six in East Hawai‘i — were arrested for suspected possession and distribution of the synthetic opioid.
During the first nine months this year, Area I Vice on the Big Island recovered a total of 1,718 fentanyl pills and a total of 2.3 grams of powdered fentanyl while Area II recovered 2,550 pills and 218.9 grams of powdered fentanyl.
In addition, drug traffickers are disguising fentanyl as legitimate prescription pills, such as Adderall, Xanax and OxyContin, or pressing it in colored pill form, known as rainbow fentanyl.
Alameda, the task force leader, said it’s not all doom and gloom. There’s hope and there’s a collaboration among local agencies and the county. The state also is providing support.
On Thursday, 5,000 boxes of the life-saving naloxone arrived from the state’s Alcohol Drug and Addiction Division to equip not only the Hawaiʻi Island police and fire department personnel but also drug users, people who live with someone at risk for an overdose, and people using opioid pain medication.
“If we can get this in the hands of at-risk users I think we can save lives,” Alameda said. “Narcan is the only thing that can revive the dead from an overdose.”
Alameda said the Big Island already was getting narcan from Hawai‘i Health and Harm Reduction Center, an organization dedicated to helping communities by reducing the harm and fighting the stigma of HIV, hepatitis, homelessness, substance use, mental illness and poverty.
The task force is currently developing plans for mass distribution of the naloxone through a drive-through at four different sites islandwide.
“We are targeting anyone who themselves are at risk of a fentanyl overdose, lives with someone at risk, or is on pain medication,” Alameda said. “We will be giving away two nasal sprays per vehicle.”
Alameda also is conducting fentanyl presentations in schools throughout the county. He explained drug abuse can start with something as simple as alcohol.
He said: “No one goes from chocolate candy to fentanyl.”