On Monday, Debra Sbragia stood on a stage beside people who’ve lost loved ones to a drug overdose. Around them rested posters with the names and photos of those who had died.
Sbragia, who founded the Stockton transitional sober living network Lily Pad, describes herself as 17 years sober. In addition to serving as the operations director for the organization, Sbragia is now a state-licensed substance use disorder counselor and attorney.
She was one of several speakers at the second-annual San Joaquin County Fentanyl Town Hall this week, where officials pledged that the county would not lose the fight against what they described as a dangerous and deadly narcotic.
Through tears and visibly strong emotions, Sbragia and her daughter Stephanie Braithwaite read the statements from families of those who have died as a result of illicit drug use. The statements honored their losses as well as the vibrant memories of the treasured lives abruptly ended.
“I understand … San Joaquin County is not willing to lose this fight,” Sbragia said. “But some of us already have.”
Sbragia’s son died of an overdose.
The town hall, which was hosted by San Joaquin County Public Health Services, the county’s Opioid Safety Coalition, County Office of Education and SJ County District Attorney’s Office, was held to bring awareness to the dangers of the powerful narcotic fentanyl, as well as opioid addiction in general, and what has and can be done to help those who are affected by illicit drug use.
Community members could attend the event in person as well as view a live stream online, a recording of which is still accessible on the SJ County Office of Education’s YouTube channel. Speakers included medical professionals, county officials and individuals with lived experience with substance use disorder and recovery. Attendees were also provided with Narcan, a naloxone nasal spray that can be used by the general public in an emergency, and a demonstration with how to administer the opiate antagonist, which is designed to rapidly reverse an opioid overdose.
SJ County Public Health Officer Maggie Park told attendees via video that she wished it could be said the county had solved its “fentanyl overdose crisis” since last year’s town hall. But that just wasn’t the case.
“Fentanyl deaths and hospitalizations continue to be a significant problem here in the county,” Park said, adding that the county saw 91 deaths related to the drug last year, about half of whom were between the ages of 15 and 34.
Fentaynal is a synthetic opioid that was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for treating severe pain, such as that experienced by cancer patients. The drug is 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times more than heroin.
Overdoses related to fentanyl have been on the rise both across the country and in SJ County over the last decade.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, overdose rates for deaths involving synthetic opioids other than methadone increased 22% from 2020-2021, which was nearly 22 times the rate reported in 2013. Most recent cases of harm, overdose and death caused by fentanyl are linked to illegally made versions of the drug, which is described as having a heroin-like effect.
Katie Nilsson, a registered nurse in the SJCOE’s comprehensive health department, told attendees that more than 73,000 people died from fentanyl-related overdoses last year.
Data from the county’s Public Health Services presented at the town hall showed that rates of fentanyl-related overdoses in SJ county have significantly increased from the beginning of 2019 to the end of 2021. In the first quarter of 2019, less than one person per 100,000 people in the county died from a fentanyl-related overdose, compared to 14.06 in the last quarter of 2021. There was a slight drop in the first quarter of 2022 to just under 14.
According to Public Health, the number of people in the county who died from fentanyl overdoses in 2021 was 48, more than 20 times higher than in 2018 and again more than half of whom were between the ages of 14-35 years old.
Troy Brown, San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools, said that overdose deaths related to the drug among teens ages 15 to 19 have risen in SJ County.
“These are our students and these are our children — and enough is enough,” Brown said.
While the drug can be prescribed legally, Brown explained that the illegal use of fentanyl is widespread and can be found in both counterfeit pills and other illicit drugs whether the user knows it or not.
“You can’t see it, smell it or taste it. But it could be there just the same,” Brown said.
Parents should be on the lookout for what she described as any small pill that is round and blue pill with an “M” stamped on one side and a “30” on the other, which is the form illicit fentanyl often takes, SJ County Deputy District Attorney Cindy De Silva said a press release earlier this month. Though she noted that fentanyl powder can also be present in other substances or different types of pills.
“These pills are often known on the streets as ‘oxies’ or ‘percs’ but in fact contain no oxycodone or Percocet, but instead contain illicitly produced fentanyl,” De Silva said in the release.
Officials say that parents should also be aware that fake prescription pills are often sold on social media and e-commerce sites, available to anyone with a smartphone.
Speakers at the event pointed out that the stigma surrounding those suffering from drug addiction is not an accurate representation and that there are myriad pathways into illicit drug use.
Key note Speaker for the event Tony Hoffman, a former professional BMX racer and motivational speaker who turned his story of drug addiction into a life dedicated to helping others and achieving his dreams, said those who suffer due to the affects of illicit drug use are often considered “bad.”
“That’s not actually true. Which is why when individuals that have lost their lives and families are shunned by the people that don’t understand what’s actually happening, it’s completely unfair,” Hoffman said. “Because then they get treated like they’re the problem. And then we never create the system that needs to be put in place to help individuals get back on track, find a purpose and feeling in life where they belong, where substances are not actually a thing that you want to do.”