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State officials and health experts are concerned over rise in fentanyl-related overdose deaths

Experts say fentanyl mostly comes in a powder form and is often laced with other drugs like heroin or cocaine, which can be unbeknownst to the user.
Michał Parzuchowski
Experts say fentanyl mostly comes in a powder form and is often laced with other drugs like heroin or cocaine, which can be unbeknownst to the user.

Iowa health experts and officials are concerned over the sharp increase in fentanyl-related overdose deaths.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths nationwide surpassed 100,000 last year, setting new records.

The federal agency reported 434 Iowans were reported to have died from drug overdoses between June 2020 and June 2021, an increase of 4 percent from the previous year.

At a press conference on Thursday, Attorney General Tom Miller said about 64 percent of overdose deaths nationwide last year were tied to fentanyl.

State health data shows 87 percent of drug overdoses in Iowa in 2021 were linked to fentanyl.

Miller said many drugs are laced with highly-potent fentanyl, which can be lethal in small doses.

"Oftentimes people don't even know that fentanyl is in their drug, which they might think is heroin or cocaine and don't even know the risks," he said.

Miller said experts theorize fentanyl is more prevalent in drugs overall because it's cheaper and provides a greater high for users.

Alison Lynch, the director of the opioid addiction clinic at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics, said fentanyl's high potency makes her very concerned about her patients and all Iowans with substance use disorders.

"It just elevates the risk that if they were to use a drug that it could be the end of their life. And so it just has elevated the stakes quite a bit and made things very scary," she said.

Lynch said it's more challenging to revive someone who has overdosed on fentanyl and the drug is more difficult to treat using common opioid addiction treatments like buprenorphine.

"It's kind of complicated to explain how that works, but fentanyl kind of works against buprenorphine," she said.

"They work against each other and so people can have a lot more trouble with withdrawal symptoms. The withdrawal symptoms can be more severe and lasts longer when somebody is getting into recovery with buprenorphine."

About 30 percent UIHC’s ER visits are now related to psychiatric and addiction needs, said Gerard Clancy, a professor of psychiatry and emergency medicine at the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics.

Clancy said that number used to be around 10 percent.

"There is a evolving epidemic within the pandemic," he said. "And that's an epidemic of both mental disorders and substance use disorders, in part, dealing with the stress of the pandemic, but in part because the treatment system has has struggled with the weight of the pandemic as well."

The rise of fentanyl has "made things much more complicated," he said.

"It's important for people to understand that fentanyl is a different player, it is more dangerous, it is harder to work with as far as some of the treatment tools that we have," he said.

However, Clancy and Lynch said mental and substance abuse disorders are treatable conditions and urged Iowans who are struggling to seek help.

Iowans seeking help can contact the UIHC Opioid Addiction Clinic or call the national Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's national hotline at 1-800-662-4357.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter