AUSTIN (KXAN) – A dangerous opioid stronger than heroin and morphine is hitting Central Texas and leaving behind a wake of death and heartbreak for families.
Even with dozens of deaths, experts say no one is paying close enough attention. Fentanyl is commonly issued as a pain medication and mostly used by cancer patients, but now more than ever people are overdosing on the drug.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration found that deaths are increasing in the Northwest and Midwest and have now moved to Texas. According to the DEA, fentanyl-related deaths nationwide are up from previous years by 73 percent.
The agency has even dubbed fentanyl an emerging threat and says the drug is so dangerous even small amounts can kill. The DEA says fentanyl is 60 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.
One Family's Plea
Every few days, Jacy Planta, along with her twin toddlers, head from Buda to Remembrance Gardens in Austin. They slowly walk along the pathway that leads to a painful place. It's where Planta's son, Cash Owen, is remembered. It is day 56 since he's been gone, and all his mother can muster is “Cash heaven,” to her little girls.
“It's a place that they'll always be able to go and talk to their brother... it's not quite the same anymore. He can't push them on the swing,” she said.
Planta said her son, a former Westlake High student, overdosed from heroin laced with fentanyl. He was rushed to the hospital and in a coma for days. “I just had to make the decision to remove him from life support and if he could breathe on his own then we would go from there and figure out what's next,” said Planta. Just hours after that decision, on Feb. 9, 2017, the 22 year old died.
Owen's battle with drugs started when he was 15 years old. Planta says her son started with marijuana and then turned to prescription pills. Planta recalls the half a dozen times her son tried to get help.
“He went to rehab, went to therapy, counseling over and over,” Planta said.
What's shocking to her is that he was sober right before his death'. “That's the scariest part for somebody with an addiction... to go back to using the same amount that you're used to. You are really playing Russian roulette.”
Tracking Fentanyl's Impact
“Our worry with fentanyl is that on the elicit-use end is that it's much more potent,” said Dr. Ryan Morrissey, the medical director of Central Texas Poison Center. He says the drug hits the respiratory system hard, to the point where breathing becomes slower and within seconds can even stop.
Dr. Morrissey says the poison center only gets a snapshot of the impact fentanyl is having around the state. In the last five years, the center has received 378 fentanyl-related calls, mainly prescription overdoses. “We only have those data if we are notified by someone at home or usually a hospital in the case of Fentanyl,” said Dr. Morrissey.
He says there is a law that states overdoses should be reported to the poison control center, but the law has no penalty so hospitals and clinics don't have to comply. The poison control center says that information would give them a better idea of what's happening.
"This is killing people at a rate of which we've never seen any drug in the history of the United States kill."
Last year, the Austin Police Department issued a warning after a spike in fentanyl overdoses. Two graduates from the same high school where Cash went, Westlake High School, were found dead after investigators say they took the drug. The dealer who admitted to selling them fentanyl was sentenced to 14 years.
In Travis County, the health department and even hospitals do not record fentanyl-related overdoses and deaths. Experts say that worries them because it's not painting an accurate picture of what they are seeing out in the communities.
Austin-Travis County EMS says they only keep track if they're called to a scene. They've treated 140 fentanyl cases in the last five years. Records from the Travis County Medical Examiner's Office show seven fentanyl-related deaths in the past eight months, but that office does not actively track the trends in fentanyl related overdose deaths.
“This is killing people at a rate of which we've never seen any drug in the history of the United States kill,” said Mark Kinzly, co-founder of Texas Overdose Naloxone Initiative. “It has reached suburban communities like no other drug epidemic that we've ever seen in this country's history.”
Kinzly walks the neighborhoods impacted daily. His nonprofit tries to get the message out about the dangers of fentanyl. Kinzly even carries naloxone, one of the most common medications used to treat overdose victims. He's saved dozens of lives but worries that many more are silently slipping away. “It is a perfect storm and I'll tell you anytime that you look at any epidemic around drug use in the United States' history, there are three things that come together: price, availability, and effect."
Kinzly believes more can be done to identify fentanyl trends. He points out that most death certificates in the state are written by a Justice of the Peace who do not perform toxicology tests like a medical examiner. “If we did better toxicology screening, if we did better data collection around deaths associated with these drugs, we would have a much better idea of where these things are trending right now." If you look at the numbers and toxicology's you would think we didn't have a problem. We have a huge problem."
Opioid Problems in Texas
State Senator Royce West, D-Dallas, has taken the lead in tackling the opioid problem in Texas. After KXAN told him about the problems when it comes to the lack of tracking fentanyl overdoses and deaths, West expressed interest in the issue.
“What we need to do is look at it to see exactly: Is it prevalent or as prevalent... becoming a prevalent as opioid related deaths over all,” said West. “So we can take a look at it to make certain that as an opioid that we decide whether or not its something we need to be tracking.”
Last session, West introduced a bill that passed and now makes naloxone available without a prescription. This session, he's pushing for a bill that requires naloxone be handed out every time a prescription is written for an opioid.
Jacy Planta hopes to meet with West and share her son's story. She's pushing for lawmakers to put at least a 72-hour hold on overdose patient at hospitals. She believes that's where withdrawal symptoms need to be treated instead of quickly releasing the patients back out into the community.
"I can't just let it go away and grieve in silence. I'm grieving, but I'm grieving screaming and raging, because this did not have to happen and that shouldn't of happened,” said Planta.
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