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Jackson County issues alert after rise in opiate overdoses

A rise in opiate overdoses over the past two weeks, including a death in Medford, has prompted Jackson County Public Health to issue an alert for the area.

Called a “yellow alert,” it’s a warning issued due to an increase in overdoses and resulting hospital emergency room admissions over a specific time period, says county health program manager Tanya Phillips. Medford police typically respond to about one overdose a week.

From Dec. 27, 2020, through Jan. 9, 2021, Medford police and Mercy Flights responded to six overdoses — three each week. The death occurred Jan. 9, police reported.

“I wouldn’t call this a spike,” Phillips said. “This would definitely be a steady increase over the last couple weeks.”

The surveillance system used to track such data only contains data from participating agencies, such as Medford police, meaning more could have gone unreported, Phillips added. Most of the overdoses stemmed from heroin, said Medford police Lt. Mike Budreau. Reasons for the increase are not known.

“We are assuming it’s a more potent batch, but there could be other factors like an increased amount of users,” Budreau said.

Budreau added that the potency of street drugs can be “incredibly inconsistent,” and that the synthetic opioid fentanyl is sometimes added to heroin.

“Usually the users are sticking to the same amount,” Budreau said. “The fentanyl aspect is the wild card.”

Whether the alert will increase to “red,” stay at “yellow” or drop off completely depends on whether the increase in cases, hospitalizations and fatalities increase.

“Really, we just want people to be aware of the situation,” Phillips said. “We really want to make sure people get help.”

Public health officials issued a “red” alert last year when Medford police responded to seven overdose cases in the course of a week.

Police and public health officials are encouraging residents to get involved with some simple steps. Calling 911 is crucial in saving someone suffering from an overdose, and Good Samaritan laws protect those who do from potential arrest and prosecution for drug charges or parole and probation violations, officials said. Medford police officers carry naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote, in their cars. It’s a key first step in delivering treatment before medical personnel arrive, Budreau said.

“When it comes to overdoses, seconds count,” Budreau said. “The point is to save a life here. These are individuals that are dealing with addiction. They are someone’s mother, they are someone’s son or daughter.”

Max’s Mission, a local nonprofit intended to reduce area overdose deaths through naloxone distribution and education, will hold a naloxone giveaway event 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday at Alba Park in Medford, according to a news release.

Public health officials pointed to a list of treatment resources and information online at staysafeoregon.com/find-help/treatment-and-recovery. The Jackson County syringe exchange program provides referrals for treatment services, public health officials said. More information is available online at jacksoncountyor.org/hhs/Public-Health/Syringe-Exchange.

Reach Mail Tribune web editor Ryan Pfeil at 541-776-4468 or rpfeil@rosebudmedia.com.