OMAHA, Neb. (KMTV) — Last year, for the first time, more Douglas County residents died of fentanyl overdoses than from any other drug.
In 2020, 49 of the 83 people who died of drug overdoses in Omaha’s home county had the synthetic opioid in their system, the data shows. That’s up from just three fentanyl deaths in 2016.
The single-year jump from 11 fentanyl deaths in 2019 to 49 in 2020 — 345% — worries the coroner and top prosecutor in Nebraska’s most populous county, Douglas County Attorney Don Kleine.
“It’s a giant increase,” Kleine told 3 News Now Investigators on Thursday. “And the trend continues. We don’t have all of our numbers for 2021, but that’s continuing to increase.”
Use of the drug spurred an increase in overdose deaths overall, from 37 in 2016 to 83 last year. Another 65 local overdose deaths came from a mixture of drugs, some of which likely included fentanyl, he said.
Kleine said a physician working for his office started combing through Omaha-area drug overdose deaths in April after noticing an increase in the number of toxicology reports showing fentanyl.
Kleine shared the overdose death statistics with 3 News Now Investigators this week following questions for last month’s story on the dangers posed by lookalike prescription pills with fentanyl in them.
"This drug is a monster,” he said. “Even though these numbers are terrible, they would be even worse but for NARCAN and the first responders and the use of that drug to bring them back.”
Omaha Fire and Rescue had noticed a significant spike in unintentional overdoses. Its crews had been reviving more people who said they thought they were taking amounts of drugs they could handle.
People who treat addiction, and some who’ve fought it personally, said people trying to quit were surprised by the potency of what they thought were black market Oxycontin pain pills or Xanax.
Shelley Barker, a peer support specialist for Centerpointe’s Campus for Hope in Omaha, said fentanyl has made even seeking drug treatment harder by making withdrawal symptoms worse.
“What goes through my mind is they’re lucky to be alive,” she said. “There’s just there’s so much out there laced with fentanyl right now, that it’s sad.”
Dr. Kenneth Zoucha, who trains the next generation of addiction specialists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, said fentanyl is being mixed into more drugs because it’s more addictive.
“It only takes using it once, twice, three times for people to feel how powerful the euphoric effect is from that and then to want to feel that way all the time,” he said.
Zoucha suggested that people who want to seek help call their doctor. He said most doctors will refer patients to counselors and other treatment providers.
Kleine, like several law enforcement sources 3 News Now spoke with last month, said people need to know they can’t be sure what’s in the illicit pills they’re buying on the street.
“The risk is extreme,” he said. “All they would have to do is go to our autopsy suites and see the body lying on the table, and the toxicity results or toxicology results showing it’s fentanyl.”