SAN DIEGO — Fentanyl overdoses in San Diego County have been on a steady rise, but now doctors are raising an alarm, saying the amount of people accidentally taking the drug is also up.

Fentanyl is the number one killer for people ages 18 to 45 in the United States and ICU staff with UCSD Health are seeing the realities of that statistic unfold in the county.

Right now, about half of ICU beds at the Hillcrest location are taken up by patients who suffered a fentanyl overdose. Many of which found themselves within hospital walls after consuming drugs like cocaine, methamphetamine or marijuana unknowingly laced with the deadly substance.

It’s a very challenging situation. I’ve been a physician now for 32 years and I’ve never seen a situation like this,” said Dr. Jess Mendel, who is the Chief of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine at UCSD Health.

For Dr. Mendel and Dr. Daniel Sweeney, who is the Medical ICU Director at UCSD Health Hillcrest, many of their patients had no idea they had taken fentanyl in the first place.

“We see a lot of critically ill people coming into our ICU secondary to overdose or the complications of these opioids,” Dr. Sweeny said.

Along with it, Dr. Sweeney says “…the marginalized communities are a little more predisposed to this, and I think as a result, that’s part of the issue here.”

It’s a harsh reality reflected in the latest data from the County Medical Examiner’s office, which show a stark rise in accidental fentanyl related deaths since 2018.

“With the growth in deaths and injuries from fentanyl we’ve seen, it’s clear we can’t just do business as usual,” Dr. Mendel said.

While stats from last year are still being gathered, data from the Medical Examiner’s office also show a half-sized jump in deaths from over 400 in 2020 to 800 in 2021.

For those who do survive, “…they don’t realize that they almost died. They’ll think, how do I get here?” The last thing they remember was using a bong and they didn’t realize that bong had fentanyl residue. It only takes a little bit to kill you,” explained Dr. Roneet Lev, who is an Emergency Physician with Scripps Mercy Hospital.

Reversal drugs like Narcan or Naloxone can help, but often enough, brain damage is there to stay, making for deadly consequences associated to a mere lack of judgment.

“With fentanyl there is really no room for error,” Dr. Mendel said. “It is so addictive and so powerful and the range from recreational use to overdose is so narrow.” 

On Tuesday, county leaders are hosting an event to address the issue at Oceanside High School Performing Arts Centers at 1 Pirates Cove Way. District Attorney Summer Stephan, Oceanside Police Department, along with parents who have lost children to fentanyl poisonings will be there for a specialized training. They will also be handing out the reversal drug Narcan.