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Idaho health leaders look for tools to prevent overdoses as fentanyl rises in the state

Forty-two percent of people who died from drug overdoses in 2021 were related to synthetic opioids, according to Idaho's Drug Overdose Prevention.

BOISE, Idaho — Fentanyl-related deaths continue to rise across the U.S. According to data collected by the CDC, fentanyl deaths in Idaho have nearly quadrupled in the last two years.

In 2019, the CDC showed 23 fentanyl-related deaths, while in 2021, there were 88 deaths related to the opioid in the Gem State.

"In the future, I think the conversation is going to continue because, unfortunately, I don't see fentanyl going away anytime soon," said Idaho's Drug Overdose Prevention Health Program Manager Caroline Messerschmidt.

Forty-two percent of people who died from drug overdoses in 2021 were related to synthetic opioids, which fentanyl falls under, Messerschmidt said. She added that it was double what it was in 2020.

Messerschmidt said Idaho's Drug Overdose Prevention Health Program, which is part of the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare (IDHW), is seeing an increase in the supply of fentanyl around the state. They're seeing it laced in heroin, Adderall, cocaine, and other drugs.

"We're hearing the same from our counterparts in Idaho State Police," Messerschmidt said.

Data collected by Idaho State Police (ISP) showed from January to September 2021, troopers seized more than 125,000 fentanyl pills statewide. It's an increase of 562 percent from 2020.

"There's definitely a concern around people unknowingly using fentanyl and what we see in our overdose stats, a majority of those are unintentional opioid overdoses," Messerschmidt said. "People not knowing that fentanyl is in their drug supply is very concerning for us."

Drug Overdose Prevention Health Program said they work to increase the availability of Naloxone, which is a nasal spray that treats overdoses, to people around the state. She adds IDHW has made the spray-free and available to any organization that has an interest. 

Recent funding also allowed the state to obtain Kloxxado, which is a higher dose of Naloxone. Messerschmidt explained Idaho health leaders and law enforcement are seeing more people need to use more than one dose of Naloxone, so this is "important" to have.

While there are some tools to treat overdoses in the state, health leaders are hopeful there may be a decline in the use of fentanyl altogether due to fentanyl testing strips. IDHW said it has 96 percent effectiveness in detecting the drug.

"It's effective as a public health intervention because they change the behavior in states that have used them. People actually use them because they're concerned about what's in their drugs," Messerschmidt said. "We know that it can save lives."

According to Messerschmidt fentanyl testing strips tests the drug supply prior to consumption. It acts almost like a pregnancy test with lines that show if it contains fentanyl or not.

However, in most circumstances, these tests are illegal in Idaho. Messerschmidt believes when these strips are used before drug consumption it would fall under "drug paraphernalia," under Idaho statute 37-2701.

Idaho's Drug Overdose Prevention Health Program is making a push to educate lawmakers and other leaders around Idaho about the importance of these testing strips.

"We know that some of law enforcement partners and other partners across the state don't really have a good understanding of how fentanyl test strips are used, what the public health impacts of them are," Messerschmidt said. She added IDHW presented a policy brief on the testing strips this legislative session.

"It can change drug behavior from using with a friend, using less of this substance, or even throwing away the drug completely."

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