Fentanyl Overdose Deaths in San Diego Spiked More than 200% During Pandemic

Last year’s increased isolation conflated an already alarming problem – a prevalence of a very lucrative and very dangerous drug: Fentanyl

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Fentanyl is now killing hundreds of San Diegans a year. It was a problem before, but during the pandemic, it's ballooned, and federal agents say it's only getting worse.      

“Heroin, meth, alcohol, you name it, I’ve tried it,” said Michael Manning, who has been in and out of substance abuse rehab programs for more than a decade.

Manning had his first sip of alcohol at age 10, smoked marijuana for the first time by 11, cocaine by his freshman year of high school, and tried heroin before his senior year.

“I remember the instance a buddy put down a shot glass in front of me and poured a shot in it,” recalled Manning about one night in high school, just a few weeks after coming home from rehab. “And there was probably eight of us, and everyone just stopped and looked at me. And I instantly said out loud, ‘It was going to happen eventually,’ and just threw it back. And then it was off to the races again.”

And for a while, Manning got away with it.

“Yeah, I put on a good show,” Manning said. “I was able to make it look like I was drinking socially when really I was drinking to blackout every weekend and then mixing in different pharmaceuticals.”

The show ended when Manning's addiction to heroin left him homeless, and in and out of jail.

“About 50% of the clients we serve at Shoreline Recovery Center come with opioid use disorder diagnoses,” said Kate Judd, the Program Director for Shoreline Recovery Center. “It’s a significant margin of our population.”

It's an addiction Judd knows firsthand.

"I’ve struggled with addiction since I was about 15,” Judd said.

The former basketball player suffered an injury that got her hooked on painkillers for eight to 10 years.

"What made them so addicting to me was they were easy to hide,” Judd said.

And hiding an addiction gets a lot easier when you're isolated, which is why Judd and Manning say they're not surprised overdoses spiked in 2020.   

“As soon as you get stuck in your own apartment by yourself that anxiety,” Manning said. “That depression is going to start running. I need to escape from that so I’m going to do more of the drugs I’m already doing.”

Last year’s increased isolation conflated an already alarming problem – a prevalence of a very lucrative and very dangerous drug: Fentanyl.

"It’s just a high, high possibility of overdose with this particular substance,” said DEA Special Agent Michael Wasser.

Fentanyl is a synthetic chemical compound that’s much cheaper and easier to make than heroine – but 20 times as potent. Imagine one-fifth of the amount of powder in a packet of artificial sweetener – that’s how little fentanyl it takes to kill someone.

NBC 7 Investigates analyzed county data and uncovered fentanyl deaths rocketed by more than 200% in 2020. We are now on pace to surpass 1,000 deaths this year - to put that in perspective, 151 San Diegans died from fentanyl in 2019.

"Those numbers are just not sustainable,” Wasser said. “Something has to hit home enough to where people have to notice."

For Manning, the threat of a prison sentence motivated him to get clean.

“I had no idea how sick I was,” Manning said. “It had nothing to do with the substances. It was the way that I was interacting with the world. My mental health, anxieties and depressions, shame and guilt."

Sober for nearly three years now, Manning wants those struggling with addiction to know it's never too late.

“I found meaning in everything,” says Manning. “I found purpose in life. I found direction. And, and I’m not giving it up. It’s not going to happen.”

You can't underestimate San Diego's role in the problem on a national level. The state of California only accounts for 10% of the border with Mexico but claims the majority of fentanyl seizures at the border.

Border seizures increased by 142% from 2019 to 2020. Just like the number of fentanyl deaths, seizures during the first five months of this year have already surpassed all of 2019.

If you are struggling with addiction or know someone who is, the hotline below is from SAMHSA – a taxpayer-funded, national, 24/7 treatment locator and helpline organization.

You can call 800-662-HELP (4357) or you can visit, https://findtreatment.gov

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