SAN FRANCISCO (KRON) — San Francisco is expected to have a record year for fatal drug overdoses with the city currently on track to reach 800 deaths. That’s more than in 2020 when 726 people were killed because of drugs.
KRON4 spoke to experts about what is causing more overdoses this year than ever before. The majority of the deaths reported this year by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner are fentanyl-related, but that was also the case the last three years.
Walk San Francisco’s streets on any given night and you could see person after person struggling with addiction. This week, the San Francisco Department of Public Health released these numbers.
“From January through September the first nine months of 2023 there have been a total of 620 overdose deaths,” said Director of San Francisco Behavioral Health Services Dr. Hillary Kunins.
That amounts to two fatal overdoses a day, and the majority are caused by fentanyl.
Already this year, San Francisco has brought in re-enforcements from the California Highway Patrol, San Francisco Sheriff’s Office and the California National Guard to help tackle the opioid epidemic. These are moves the National Harm Reduction Coalition has been critical of from the start.
“If you stigmatize people who use drugs, they are going to go underground and be potentially more likely to overdose with less support from the community or the harm reduction providers,” said Director of Overdose Prevention Policy and Strategy Mary Sylla.
Sylla said increased policing can’t be the only thing to blame for a record year of overdoses. She says the number one solution will be getting Narcan into the hands of drug users to reverse overdoses.
One other solution according to health experts in San Francisco is the city’s new Night Navigator Program. It’s a team of people who have gone out from 7 p.m. to 3 a.m. for the last weeks providing outreach.
Donna Hilliard leads the team and says it’s made up of people who have experienced homelessness and who have overcome drug addiction.
“Saying, ‘Hey, we have shelter space available right now and we can transport you,’ we also have a sobering center available if you want or if you want to go to a detox,” said Executive Director Code Tenderloin Donna Hilliard.
She says, on average, eight people a night are saying yes to getting help, but that fentanyl’s reach makes the work of harm reduction more difficult each night.
“Fentanyl can be in cocaine, in powdered substances. People don’t know that, so there’s people that are not using fentanyl but are being exposed to fentanyl and then you see the overdose because they weren’t aware,” Hilliard said.
Fentanyl is the number one cause of fatal drug overdoses in San Francisco, followed by meth and cocaine.