Summit County Sheriff’s Office researching new tool to help prevent fentanyl overdoses and deaths
Though many details are still being worked out, Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said the drug-testing strips can help save lives
Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons and his department are researching a new way to prevent overdoses and substance use deaths in the community.
During Tuesday’s Summit Board of County Commissioners’ work session meeting, FitzSimons told the commissioners and other elected officials that he attended a meeting Aug. 6, held through the Substance Abuse Trend and Response Task Force, which included a presentation about fentanyl strips.
“There was an interesting presentation from one of the groups on fentanyl test strips, and there was a study (that said) 86% of users — these are people that are going to get high — that were given these test strips tested their dope and either decided to throw it away or change their dosage because they didn’t want to die or overdose,” he said during Tuesday’s meeting.
FitzSimons said the presentation got him excited and hopeful that these strips could be a means of protecting community members from overdosing or dying from laced opioids and cocaine. Substance use deaths are currently on the rise in the county, and FitzSimons said the strips could be effective in stopping this trend or at least decreasing the amount of naloxone, an overdose-reversal drug, used by his department.
Data regarding how many times naloxone is used countywide is collected by Centura Health, and the representative who has that data was out of the office and couldn’t report back by deadline. Summit County Coroner Regan Wood said that in 2015, the county had an issue with fentanyl-related deaths but that the situation has improved since then.
Amber Flenniken, Summit County chief deputy coroner, reported that there were at least two cases in 2020 where fentanyl was the cause of death among other drugs. So far this year, there have also been two cases where fentanyl was the cause of death among other drugs. All four cases showed evidence of polysubstance use. Flenniken noted that there could be more cases but that she couldn’t confirm by deadline.
Wood said she believes these test strips to be worth implementing into the community, especially because drugs are being laced with the synthetic opioid.
During the commissioners’ meeting, FitzSimons noted that his sources from the U.S.-Mexico border said everything, meaning most illegal street drugs, is laced with fentanyl and that these strips can make it known to users who might be unaware.
“It’s Russian roulette because there’s no one over there that’s certified to put fentanyl in illegal drugs that’s going, ‘We’re going to measure the fentanyl,’” FitzSimons said. “They’re just throwing it in the batch.”
As for how this program would look in Summit County, FitzSimons said there are many details that still need to be worked out, such as the cost, how the strips would get distributed and how many to order at one time.
One method of distribution could be directly through the Summit County Detention Facility. FitzSimons said his team already screens all people booked into jail for substance use disorders. Those who identify as substance users would then be offered the strips before leaving.
FitzSimons said that in 2020, his department booked 432 inmates, who were screened for mental health and substance use issues. Of these, FitzSimons said 201 inmates had a positive screen, meaning they tested positive for mental health or substance abuse issues. He said it’s important to note that all of these inmates self-disclosed their struggles. He also noted that officers are unaware of whether the individuals are telling the truth.
Using the same system, FitzSimons said his department booked and screened 340 individuals so far this year and that 184 disclosed they had mental health or substance use issues.
In addition to possibly offering test strips to individuals who disclose substance use issues during the screening, FitzSimons said these individuals are given information on treatment options if they want it. Due to the county’s limited substance use treatment options, FitzSimons said the strips can be an impactful means of protecting substance users until the county has more treatment options.
He also noted that the strips could give people who partake in drug use a chance to change their minds.
“I think we need to recognize the fact that there are some people that are going to use drugs that have no interest in getting sober,” FitzSimons said. “If we can prevent them from dying or — on the flip side — keep them alive long enough to want to get sober, wouldn’t that be a goal worth achieving? Every day that someone doesn’t die, they might change their mind that day.”
It’s this perspective that Summit County Commissioner Josh Blanchard especially supported.
“I do think this is a positive step in acknowledging behavior whereas naloxone is sort of a reactionary response,” Blanchard said. “This is preventative to some degree, and it allows the user to think about the consequences of using.”
Wood was also in support of these test strips.
“I can tell you historically, given the fact that we’re usually there and dealing with the friends and family or whomever, friends that are also partaking, their biggest regret is, ‘Damn, I wish we would have known that there was fentanyl in that,’” Wood said. “Like you said, they’re going to do it anyway, but they can test it and say, ‘Maybe not.’”
Blanchard suggested that if these strips are launched in the community, there should be some kind of follow-up with those individuals to see if they’ve changed their minds about treatment.
FitzSimons said he’s passionate about fine-tuning the details of this could-be program, mostly because it would be one more tool to protect substance users.
“The (naloxone) program is awesome for what it does, but we’re literally reviving dead people,” he said. “This is a way of keeping people alive long enough to want to get help.”
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