Fentanyl, the drug fueling the deadly opioid epidemic, has not spared Summit County. Local advocates and officials are fighting back. | SummitDaily.com

Fentanyl, the drug fueling the deadly opioid epidemic, has not spared Summit County. Local advocates and officials are fighting back.

Last year in Colorado 1,148 people died of overdoses involving opioids, including 6 Summit County residents, 4 of whom tested positive for fentanyl

In 2021, the GRANITE enforcement team seized 70 pounds of fentanyl along the I-70 corridor running through Eagle County. The fentanyl was found exclusively in counterfeit oxycodone M30 pills, like the ones pictured above.
GRANITE/Courtesy photo

Frisco resident George Gerchow had never heard of fentanyl before the drug took his teenage son’s life two years ago.

An avid basketball player and talented musician, 17-year-old Xavier Gerchow died of fentanyl poisoning after consuming what he thought was a Percocet, a painkiller that is part of the opioid family of drugs, his father said. It was a Thursday night like any other, and Gerchow had told his son he loved him before going to bed around 9:30 p.m.

“I had a charmed life,” Gerchow said, “until March 12, 2021.”

Sometime in the early hours of Friday morning, Xavier’s friend knocked on his window and offered him half a pill, according to his father. Sore from his workout earlier in the day and believing the pill to be a Percocet, Xavier took it.

Minutes later, he was dead.

His friend, who took the other half of the pill, spent the next 36 hours in the hospital but survived, Gerchow said. When the drug analysis came back, he said the families learned the pill was not a Percocet at all. It contained 99% fentanyl and 1% cocaine.

“It can happen to anyone,” Gerchow said. “You watch your kid come home one night on his feet, and then the next morning he’s leaving on a gurney.”

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, is the drug at the center of the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.

In 2021, more than 106,000 people died from drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, with about 70,600 of those involving opioids, particularly fentanyl. 

Communities nationwide have suffered from the impacts of fentanyl, including Summit County, as the drug draws few distinctions between social classes. A recent analysis by The Washington Post found that fentanyl is the leading cause of death for Americans ages 18-49, outpacing suicide, gun violence and car accidents.

“We’re certainly not in a bubble in Summit County,” Summit County Public Health Director Amy Wineland said, “and it’s super important for people to be aware of fentanyl.”

Last year in Colorado, 1,779 people died from drug overdoses, of which 1,148 involved opioids, according to preliminary statistics released by the state. That is down slightly from 2021, when 1,881 Coloradians died of drug overdoses, of which 1,258 involved opioids.

In Summit County last year, 15 people died of drug overdoses, according to statistics provided by the Summit County Coroner’s Office. Of those, six involved opioids and four involved fentanyl.

“One overdose is too many for a community our size,” Summit County Sheriff Jaime FitzSimons said. “Because of the fishbowl effect, there are very few degrees of separation in our community. We all know each other through someone in this community. So one drug overdose is enough to have a traumatic impact on this community.”

Despite its deadliness, advocates and public health officials say fentanyl remains shrouded by a stigma that stymies progress toward addressing the urgency of the drug epidemic. 

Meanwhile, fentanyl has only become more prevalent on the black market. Law enforcement officials say cartels and drug dealers are taking advantage of the cheap and addictive qualities of the drug, mixing it with other illicit narcotics and forging counterfeit pills that may appear to be Oxycodone, Percocet or other prescription pills that could contain a fatal dose of fentanyl.

In an effort to spread public knowledge about the dangers of fentanyl — and how to avoid it if partaking in illicit drug use — the Summit County Public Health Department will be hosting a Fentanyl Awareness Day event at Theater SilCo, located at 460 Blue River Parkway in Silverthorne, on Wednesday, May 10, from 4 p.m. to 7 p.m. 

The opioid-overdose antidote naloxone, often known by the brand name Narcan, will be available for free at the event.

“It’s a problem we need to address,” Wineland said. “Luckily over the past few years, we’ve been able to have more resources available.”

X Foundation/Courtesy photo
Madison and Xavier Gerchow on their last Christmas together. Xavier died of fentanyl poisoning on March 12, 2021, after consuming a pill he thought was a Percocet.
X Foundation/Courtesy photo

‘This drug does not discriminate’

Xavier’s death upended Gerchow’s life. Though Xavier was well-loved in the community, the local school district never reached out to the family or notified the school of the tragic incident, Gerchow said, even as his son’s friends and classmates struggled to cope with the trauma.

As he navigated the months after his son’s death, Gerchow said he became aware of an air of silence around fentanyl and the families and individuals impacted by the drug. After more than 40 years in Colorado Springs, where he raised his family, Gerchow moved to Summit County full time to cope with his son’s death by spending more time outside.

“Whenever I’m in the fetal position in the morning because of what happened, I get up, ride my bike, go snowboarding, walk my dog. My problems get a little smaller,” Gerchow said. “I never want another family to go through this if I can help it.”

Fed up with the silence around the fentanyl and recognizing the need for meaningful conversations around the drug, Gerchow and Xavier’s older sister, Madison, founded a nonprofit shortly after his death to raise awareness and facilitate change.

The X Foundation — named in honor of Xavier, who went by the nickname X — aims to raise awareness around fentanyl poisonings and harm reduction measures such as naloxone and test strips, lessen the stigma around the drug and give impacted families a voice.

“My son was a lot like yours,” Gerchow said. “He just took a pill that night and thought it was a Percocet. That’s not an overdose. It’s a poisoning.”

That distinction is important, Gerchow said, because it better reflects how people are dying of fentanyl. While people often associate drug overdoses with people who struggle with addiction, those perceptions add to the stigma around the drug, even as many people who die of fentanyl are not addicted and have consumed the drug inadvertently, he said.

“This is not a socioeconomic issue. Most people think, ‘Oh, fentanyl, that’s happening in the ghetto,'” Gerchow said. “In reality this is happening in the middle class, the upper-middle class, upper class. It doesn’t matter.”

Wineland, the Summit County Public Health director, agreed that many people are inadvertently consuming fentanyl when they mean to take other recreational street drugs. Therefore people should be highly skeptical of any drug or pill not directly prescribed by their doctor, she said.

“You can’t trust anybody unless you’re getting medications prescribed to you,” Wineland said. “We’re seeing lots and lots of accidental (fentanyl) poisonings happening.”

Because of how widespread the drug is and how often it is mixed with or made to look like other drugs, its impacts have been widespread and not contained to any one subset of the population, she said.

“This drug does not discriminate between any age or gender or county or state,” Wineland said, “and we definitely have it here in our community.”

Often, Gerchow said he wonders if things could have been different if he had been aware of what fentanyl was and could have talked to his son about the danger of taking illicit drugs or lookalike drugs that could be mixed with a fatal dose of fentanyl.

“I punish myself every day, and I mean every single day,” Gerchow said. “What if you had known what it was? You could have had a conversation with Xavier. You could have potentially saved his life.”

Too late to have that conversation with his own son, Gerchow now has those conversations with other families, hoping to honor his son’s memory by passing along knowledge that could prevent another tragic death.

“Most people think its not going to happen to them until it does,” Gerchow said. “So they don’t have those hard conversations with their kids.”

Summit County Sheriff's Office/Courtesy photo
Fentanyl test strips, a box of naloxone and a flyer for the Fentanyl Awareness Day event scheduled for April 10, 2023, are pictured at the Summit County Sheriff’s Office.
Summit County Sheriff’s Office/Courtesy photo

‘Russian roulette’

The opioid crisis grew into what it is — with fentanyl as the driving force of the deadly epidemic — in three waves, according to Wineland. The first wave began in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the pharmaceutical industry pushed for the overprescription of opioids such as Oxycodone.

“We know there was overprescription being done,” Wineland said. “But Big Pharma wasn’t being transparent about the addictive nature (of opioids), and people started getting hooked.”

As society caught on to how addictive opioids were, regulations followed and doctors began prescribing fewer opioids, Wineland said, forcing many people who had become addicted to prescription opioids to turn to the black market.

That led to the second wave of the opioid crisis, where people newly addicted to prescription opioids could no longer find the drugs legally and oftentimes turned to cheaper alternatives, like heroin, that could be purchased illicitly, she said.

Now, with fentanyl being mass produced on the black market, the United States has entered a third — and even more deadly — wave of the opioid crisis, Wineland said, as the potent drug has proliferated to the point where it can be hard to avoid in any drug purchased on the streets. 

“Now that fentanyl has taken its hold, things have gotten way out of hand in terms of deaths across the nation,” she said.

Drug dealers today can easily and cheaply produce fentanyl from precursors and often add it to various other illicit street drugs — not to kill people — but because it is so cheap and addictive, according to Sheriff FitzSimons.

“It’s a cheap filler. It’s extremely addictive. The intent isn’t to kill people, but there isn’t any quality control either,” FitzSimons said. “That’s why we talk about it being Russian roulette.”

FitzSimons is not alone in making comparisons to Russian roulette, where a player places a single round in a revolver, spins the cylinder, places the muzzle against their head and pulls the trigger.

“People experiment,” Gerchow said. “And now you’re playing Russian roulette every time you experiment. So the message can’t just be ‘don’t do drugs.'”

There is a broadening consensus that to address the high toll of the fentanyl and opioid epidemic, drug abstinence isn’t the only answer.

“We know that our resort community is visited by people all over the world,” Wineland said. “We have to acknowledge that a lot of people come to have a good time, and that sometimes involves using drugs recreationally.”

Nowadays, every single public safety official in Summit County carries naloxone, the nasal spray that can reverse the effects of opioid poisoning, and health officials encourage those who are going to use street drugs to have the overdose antidote handy in case of fentanyl poisoning. 

Residents and visitors can pick up free naloxone from the Summit County Public Health offices, Wineland said, noting that the department has handed out over 2,500 doses. The health department and Sheriff’s Office have also worked to educate all middle schoolers and high schoolers in the county about the dangers of fentanyl.

FitzSimons also noted that there is a push to have naloxone available in every Automated External Defibrillator kit across the county, and he recommended that everyone have it in their vehicle or first aid kit. 

“You may think you’re just partying with your friends, but you are literally playing Russian roulette,” FitzSimons said. “If you’re going to do it, for God’s sake, if you’re hanging around friends who do it, have Narcan (naloxone). Everyone should have it.”

For those who do partake in illicit drug use, fentanyl test strips are another important tool, FitzSimons said. He noted that Colorado just legalized the strips, which can indicate whether a drug contains fentanyl, last year.

But both FitzSimons and Wineland noted that fentanyl test strips are not 100% accurate and can only lessen the risk of accidentally consuming fentanyl. Wineland noted that a pill containing illicit drugs can be like a chocolate chip cookie — with no fentanyl on one side but a fatal dose on the other. Moreover, in a single batch of pills, one pill could contain a fatal dose of fentanyl while the other could be fine, she said.

“It’s buyer beware, truly, with the fake pills and other illicit drugs on the market,” Wineland said. “The truth is fentanyl is so potent at such small amounts, it’s really easy for the drug dealers to move it around.”

Overall, while public health and safety officials hope that no one is doing illicit drugs, those that are should be prepared to test their drugs with fentanyl strips and have friends with naloxone available in case of fentanyl poisoning, FitzSimons said.

“No one is condoning this,” FitzSimons said, “but as a society we have to wrap our minds around: there are addicts, there are recreational drug users and then there’s a third group, people who want to get help.”

In Summit County, the resources to address that third group — the people who are addicted to drugs but want help — are what is lacking, FitzSimons added. If someone addicted to drugs wants help there is no in-patient rehabilitation center in the county to send them to, he said, so he has to recommend ones in Denver or Grand Junction, which can deter the person from seeking help, especially if there is a wait list.

Still, advocates like Gerchow believe that public discussions and awareness around the subject of fentanyl can lead to change, saving lives and keeping families and communities intact.

“It’s something that is in your neighborhood. It’s something that’s in your circles,” Gerchow said. “Knowing what it is and that two grains of salt worth can kill somebody is important.”

SAMHSA’s National Helpline, 1-800-662-HELP (4357) is a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year information service, in English and Spanish, for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups and community-based organizations.

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