With fentanyl ODs still surging, fear of increased drug use among Latino youth has county leaders concerned

Counterfeit prescription pills are attacking people in Santa Cruz County, especially young people.
(Via U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency)

A survey conducted among high school youth in Watsonville earlier this year suggests that a growing number of kids are experimenting with substances beyond alcohol and marijuana on a regular basis. Leaders hope a Spanish-language town hall Monday night will help illuminate the problem more broadly — and affirm to parents the danger fentanyl presents. The number of deaths the synthetic opioid has caused in Santa Cruz County in 2022 will set a new high, Lookout has learned.

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Data suggesting that young Latinos are growing more prone to illicit drug use has been emerging on both the local and national levels — a highly concerning development given the growing prevalence of fentanyl in all types of street drugs.

Lookout confirmed with coroner’s office investigator Dr. Stephany Fiore on Sunday that Santa Cruz County will easily surpass 2021 for fentanyl-related overdose deaths, even after the 2021 numbers had presented a troubling 100% year-over-year spike.

“And we still have December to go,” Fiore warned.

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Santa Cruz County Public Health Officer Gail Newel
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

POISONED: A Lookout analysis of the fentanyl crisis

PART 1: The facts about the fentanyl crisis that is killing an increasing number of Santa Cruz County’s young people

PART 2: A community comes together for a town hall meeting — a sign that education and information are becoming a priority

PART 3: Quelling the ‘stigma of shame’: The county’s top doctor opens up about the pain of losing a child to fentanyl

* * *

Statewide in 2021, fentanyl accounted for one-fifth of the deaths in the 15-to-24 age group. Overall deaths in that age group were more than six times greater than they were three years earlier. For teens in the 15-to-19 range, the opioid death rate has increased fourfold since 2018 — and sevenfold for 20- to 24-year-olds.

Recent survey results from a group of Watsonville teens amplified existing concerns, helping spur a Spanish-language virtual town hall Monday night that aims to make parents more aware of the high-stakes environment their children face right now thanks to fentanyl’s deadly presence.

“The data from that survey has been really informative and told us where to go in terms of outreach to kids and families,” said Dr. Jen Hastings, who works with SafeRx, the county-funded group on the front lines of the drug problems, which is hosting the town hall from 6-7:30 p.m. via Zoom.

The topics of focus: fentanyl 101 basics; how to access essential resources, such as naloxone/Narcan; and how to use it; how to have open and honest conversations without stigma. SafeRx, a state- and county-funded coalition that is part of the Health Improvement Partnership of Santa Cruz County, hosted an English-language town hall in late April on the heels of Lookout’s reporting around the topic of the rising number of fentanyl overdoses and the county’s response to it.

Nearly 200 people attended that town hall in April to express concerns and ask questions. They received sobering data points and anecdotal input from experts such as Fiore, who said, “Drug deaths, in general, tend to peak with people in their 50s. With fentanyl, we’re seeing it peak in the 30s and drift down into the teens. It’s something that I haven’t seen since I’ve been here in the last eight years.”

Dr. Stephany Fiore during her presentation in December 2021.

The story of Sophie Veniel, who lost her 26-year-old son, William, to a fentanyl-laced counterfeit Xanax pill in January, highlighted the human loss that continues after an astounding 100,000 Americans died from opioid overdoses in 2021. Part 3 of Lookout’s “Poisoned” series illustrated that addiction, and the fentanyl scourge in particular, knows no bounds, taking the life of county health officer Gail Newell’s son Nyeland, a Santa Cruz dentist, during the early days of the drug’s West Coast emergence in 2016.

The Monday meeting kicks off a week of hyper-focus on the topic of drug overdoses and deaths in Santa Cruz County. On Wednesday, Fiore, along with deputy health officer and head of emergency medicine Dr. David Ghilarducci and SafeRx’s Rita Hewitt, will present their annual findings to a group of county leaders.

Data provided by deputy health officer Dr. David Ghilarducci shows the overdose epidemic only worsening in 2022.

Data Ghilarducci shared with Lookout shows the number of overall overdose reports countywide — regardless of whether they proved fatal — has increased in 2022 at a clip similar to what Fiore is seeing with fatalities. But the growing concern for our youngest population is undeniable.

That knowledge helped spur a group of South County teens who make up Empower Watsonville, a cohort within the Pajaro Valley Prevention and Student Assistance nonprofit, to create a survey of their peers in the spring.

A slide from Empower Watsonville's survey data gathered from high school students.
(Via Empower Watsonville)

The group surveyed 400 teens about their drug-use habits beyond alcohol and marijuana, finding that Xanax (27.2%), hallucinogens (28.2%), cocaine (22.6%), Adderall (15.8%) and fentanyl (7.2%) were the top drugs of choice.

Friends and social media are where the Watsonville high school kids say they get drugs. The group’s final report said “the survey allowed us to view the usage, consumption, and accessibility of substances to Pajaro Valley youth” and it hopes the discourse will help create “restorative policies to encourage youth to access services, reduce barriers to services; form youth-to-youth relationships; reduce stigma; create a safe space; recruit more adult partners in amplifying their voice.”

One survey respondent said they began smoking marijuana in seventh grade to “fit in and try to be cool” and they are now concerned by how “normalized” the use of substances has become in the local high school populations.

“I estimate that at least 60% of Watsonville High and 75% of Pajaro Valley High students do substances,” the respondent wrote. “They think it’s normal and that it has no consequences and won’t do any harm to their bodies.”

“The school-to-prison pipeline, and suspension, does not help,” wrote another. “Students need resources and help.”


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