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Overdose alert issued for Jackson County

Jackson County Public Health issued an “overdose alert” Monday after three recent deaths that officials suspect were caused by illicit opioids, as well as recent opioid overdose-related emergency room admissions and police calls for service.

The deaths occurred between Feb. 14 and Feb. 27, public health officials said. There were also five opioid overdose-related ER visits over the same period, with four one week and one the following, and four police responses to similar overdoses, two each week. The normal local reported rate of opioid overdose-related ER visits is about one per week, and police responses to opioid overdoses pencil out to an average of less than one a week, public health officials said.

Unlike past alerts in Jackson County, public health officials are no longer utilizing yellow or red color codes to describe either moderate or more severe warnings. For now, all incidents will be defined as “overdose alerts.”

“Overall, we have low numbers here,” Tanya Phillips, Jackson County health promotion program manager, said of opioid overdoses. “And so when you work at really low numbers, looking at data it’s very difficult to set thresholds ... that would really work with a colored system.”

Color-coded or not, the alerts are primarily intended to raise awareness and remind community members about addiction treatment options, Phillips said.

Public health last issued a “yellow alert” for Jackson County Jan. 11. From Dec. 27 through Jan. 9, Medford police and Mercy Flights responded to six overdoses, three each week, with one resulting in a death Jan. 9. Officials lifted that alert Jan. 28 when the number of cases dropped. Prior to that, public health officials had issued a “red alert” in 2020 when Medford police responded to seven overdoses in one week.

The surveillance system used to track overdoses contains data from participating public safety agencies, such as Medford police and Mercy Flights, so some additional incidents may have gone unreported, Phillips said. Some of the overdoses are suspected to be from fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, public health officials said.

Pharmaceutical fentanyl is approved to treat severe pain, typically from advanced-stage cancer. It is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

“It is also sometimes used to treat patients with chronic pain who are physically tolerant to other opioids,” the site says.

But the drug is also made and sold illegally, frequently mixed with heroin and other drugs, or sold in the form of counterfeit prescription opioid pills, according to a public health news release.

“Street fentanyl can be in the form of white, gray or tan powder, dropped on blotter paper, eye dropper or nasal sprays,” the release said.

More than 36,000 deaths from synthetic opioids were reported in the U.S. in 2019, according to the Centers For Disease Control.

Treatment resources and information is available online at https://oregonrecoverynetwork.org, and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration help line, 1-800-662-4357, offers free, confidential assistance for individuals and families dealing with mental health issues or substance abuse disorders. Jackson County’s syringe exchange program also provides referrals for treatment services. People who utilize the program can receive free naloxone, an opioid overdose antidote. More information is available at jacksoncountyor.org/hhs/Public-Health/Syringe-Exchange.

Max’s Mission, a local nonprofit whose goal is to distribute naloxone locally, will hold a naloxone distribution event from 2 to 4 p.m. Thursday, March 4, at Hawthorne Park, nonprofit co-founder Julia Pinsky said. Information about receiving naloxone by mail, and information about emergency naloxone placed at several points in Jackson and Josephine counties are available on the Max’s Mission website, www.maxsmission.org.

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