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County sees dramatic increase in opioid deaths
• 132 deaths in Stanislaus County during 2020, up 59%
opioids graphic
This graphic shows where prescription opioids come from.

The opioid epidemic, already a problem in the region, was made worse over the previous year, with Stanislaus County recording an increase of overdose deaths from opioids.

In 2020, Stanislaus County recorded 132 total deaths from overdose, which is an increase of 59 percent from 2019, according to the Stanislaus County Health Services Agency. Of the 132 overdose deaths, 78 were opioid related. White residents continue to experience the highest opioid death rate, but the largest increase was seen in 18- to 24-year-olds in the Latinx community. This segment of the population saw an increase of 150 percent from 2019 to 2020, the SCHSA reported.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention stated drug overdoses “surged during the pandemic” with more than 87,000 people dying from drug overdoses in the 12 months ending in September 2020 — the latest figures available. That is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a year since the opioid epidemic began in the 1990s, the New York Times reported.

The CDC points to several factors unique to the pandemic has having a direct role in the increase in overdose deaths. The disruptions to daily life during the pandemic “drove those Americans already in the shadows further into isolation, economic fragility, and fear, while disrupting the treatment and support systems that might have saved them. Increased isolation of drug users meant less contact with friends, family, and others who could try to revive them or seek help if they appeared to be overdosing,” said Dr. Bernardo Mora, the medical director with the county’s Behavioral Health and Recovery Services in a news release.

Another driver of the increase in overdose deaths are counterfeit pills that contain fentanyl. Fentanyl is a highly potent painkiller, 100 times stronger than morphine and 150 times stronger than oxycodone. Fentanyl can be diluted with cutting agents to create the counterfeits, which mimic the effect of oxycodone but are much cheaper to buy on the street than oxycodone alone.

“Unscrupulous drug dealers knowingly sell Fentanyl, or other drugs laced with Fentanyl, for a cheaper high,” said Stanislaus County Sheriff Jeff Dirkse. “Their actions are killing people in our community.”

Individuals selling such counterfeit pills could face even harsher consequences in the legal system. 

“We will pursue criminal charges, up to and including murder, for those who sell such poison to others,» said Stanislaus County District Attorney Birgit Fladager.

While the overall opioid epidemic may seem overwhelming, there are some actions that Stanislaus County residents can take to help bring the number down locally.

The SCHSA pointed to a recent study that found many abusing opioids find pills in the medicine cabinets of friends and family. A national survey on drug use and health asked respondents who misused prescription pain relievers to identify where they obtained the pills that they had most recently misused. The most common source, reported by half of all respondents, was “from a friend or relative for free.”  Proper disposal of unused or expired prescription medications prevents drug abuse, accidental overdose, and environmental impacts.

The next “Drop the Drugs” event will be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday at 800 11th Street in Modesto.  It will be a drive-thru event located on the I Street side of the Stanislaus County Courthouse.  Residents can bring medications including those for pain, such as opioids and Fentanyl, in their original containers which will be incinerated, protecting the identity of the individuals.  This is an anonymous and free event. Sharps will also be accepted in a rigid, tightly sealed container. 

The SCHSA also recommends that more people, especially those with friends of family members addicted to opioids, learn more about Naloxone. Naloxone, known more commonly by the brand name Narcan, is a non-addictive life-saving medication that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose when administered in time. 

“Carrying a naloxone rescue kit is essential if you or someone in your life suffers from opioid use disorder,” Mora said. “It is also important to consider having a naloxone rescue kit if you or someone you know has been prescribed opioids. Ask your pharmacist how you may obtain naloxone, even without a prescription.”

Lastly, the SCHSA hopes more residents will educate themselves about opioid addiction and overdose.

“Drug addiction is a disease, not a moral failure,” Dr. Mora said. “Stigma exists around drug addiction, yet anyone can find themselves dependent on pills. We should offer support and treatment options, not shame or blame, to those who are suffering.”

If you or someone you know is struggling with substance use, seek help now. Call 888-376-6246 or visit