NEW CASTLE, Del. (WTXF) - Deaths from fentanyl overdoses in Delaware is becoming alarming. Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller that is up to 50 times more potent than heroin.
The state Department of Health and Social Services reports 44 people dead from overdoses involving fentanyl just through mid-May. For comparison, there were fewer deadly overdoses - 42 - in all of last year.
State officials say this mirrors national trends. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported overdose deaths in the U.S. nearly doubled from 2013 to 2014, and synthetic opioids were largely responsible.
Delaware officials add, "The number of fentanyl-related deaths soared by 180 percent from 15 deaths in 2012 to 42 deaths in 2015."
They blame drug dealers selling packets with pure fentanyl in white powder form to people who assume they're buying heroin, lacing fentanyl with cocaine or heroin, and pressing fentanyl into pills and passing them off as OxyContin.
Last year, 228 people died from overdoses in Delaware, with 222 overdose deaths reported in 2014, according to the Division of Forensic Science.
"The fentanyl is so toxic that it greatly decreases the chance of survival," said Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary James Mosley. "In only seven of the 44 cases did the Division of Forensic Science also confirm the presence of heroin. This year we are seeing an increase in cocaine, with the drug's presence confirmed in 19 of the fentanyl-related overdose cases."
Fentanyl affects the central nervous system and brain, and users often have trouble breathing or can stop breathing as the drug sedates them.
If someone is too drowsy to answer questions, is having difficulty breathing, or appears to be so asleep they cannot be awakened, call 911 immediately. Under Delaware's 911/Good Samaritan Law, people who call 911 to report an overdose cannot be prosecuted for low-level drug crimes.
People actively abusing substances are urged to call DHSS' 24/7 Crisis Services Helpline to be connected to addiction treatment options. In New Castle County, the number is 1-800-652-2929. In Kent and Sussex counties, the number is 1-800-345-6785.
There is also addiction treatment and recovery service information on DHSS' website.
And, the Drug Enforcement Agency's Philadelphia office is warning of a new dangerous synthetic opioid, W-18, which is 100 times more potent than fentanyl, and is being laced into heroin and cocaine available in Philadelphia.
Dangerously, it is difficult for forensic toxicology labs to detect the presence of W-18 in bodily fluid or seized drug samples.