People come to Valley Hope in Atchison, Kansas, to get clean. They’re fed up with addiction to cocaine or methamphetamine or OxyContin.
And that’s when some find out through a drug test that they’re actually hooked on something else, too: A drug they didn’t even know they were taking.
This synthetic opioid is far more potent than morphine or heroin. Even small amounts can kill. Withdrawal from it is painful.
And the growing practice of spiking other drugs with fentanyl — to heighten the addiction and keep buyers coming back for more — is fueling a sharp increase in fatal overdoses across Kansas and the U.S.
Physician Jon Siebert, Valley Hope Association’s medical director, sees the shock that patients experience when they learn they’re addicted to fentanyl. He asks them what they’ve been buying.
“The typical answer is, they’ll say, ‘Well, I’m doing Oxy-30,’” he said. “People who are manufacturing fentanyl, they press it into a pill.”
The pills look like 30mg OxyContin. It’s enough to trick people into trying it. Some eventually realize it contains fentanyl, but by then stopping is no easy feat.
The latest preliminary federal and state tallies of drug deaths paint an alarming picture for 2020 that appears to be worsening in 2021.
Overdose deaths increased 30% across the country in 2020, and rose by one-quarter in Kansas and by one-fifth in Missouri.
The federal government says the national death toll — it topped 90,000 in 2020 — set a grim record. In Kansas, it appears nearly 500 people died from overdoses.
Figures aren’t complete for 2021, but the most recent tallies published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggest fatal overdoses continue to trend upward.
Experts say the alarming trend is fueled largely by the prevalence of fentanyl and similar substances that people often consume unknowingly when mixed into other opioids and drugs.
National health officials suspect a direct link to the spread of COVID-19, which isolated people, destabilized their finances and housing, and complicated their access to medical and mental health care.
For many people, he said, “addiction is a disease of isolation.” Staying clean requires support, and the pandemic cuts off more people from loved ones, friends or professionals.
“You’re not able to be around your peers and get the help you need when you’re having a bad day,” he said.
Valley Hope Association, which has residential centers in seven states, has continued to serve people through the pandemic. COVID-19 regularly interrupts that work.
Across the Valley Hope network, Siebert said COVID-19 disruptions happen almost weekly.
“You can’t guarantee that everyone’s not got COVID when they check in,” Siebert said. “And so occasionally someone does get sick, and you have to pause admissions.”
Though a federal survey found many people said the pandemic interrupted their access to illegal drugs, it also found that millions reported increasing their consumption in 2020.
In October, the Biden administration said it would back strategies meant to save lives among people struggling with addiction.
That includes approaches that are sometimes controversial, such as providing test strips that help drug users check for fentanyl contamination in other substances they buy from dealers, NPR reported.
Kansas is one of a handful of states reporting the biggest jumps — percentage-wise — in lives lost to overdoses during a 12-month period early in the pandemic.
Kansans can get free training in administering naloxone to someone experiencing an opioid overdose. Naloxone (also known by the brand name, Narcan) counteracts the overdose.
Kansas health officials say that an analysis of overdoses during the first six months of 2021 shows the vast majority of deaths involved methamphetamine, fentanyl or similar substances called fentanyl analogs.
Prescription opioids and cocaine also played a role, the Kansas Department of Health and Environment says.
Federal officials say even in fatal overdoses on methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs, fentanyl contamination is usually involved.
The federal government operates a website meant to help people struggling with addiction to find treatment. The Kansas hotline for substance addictions is (866) 645-8216.
The American Medical Association says every state has seen overdose spikes during the pandemic. It wants the federal government to help remove insurance hurdles and other barriers to addiction treatment.
Celia Llopis-Jepsen reports on consumer health for the Kansas News Service. Follow her on Twitter @celia_LJ. The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of Kansas Public Radio, KCUR, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.