While Orange Coast College students and others worldwide have dealt with the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States has dealt with another epidemic simultaneously: the opioid crisis.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, nearly 50,000 people in the U.S. died from opioid-related overdoses in 2019. Sadly, this has only grown worse during the pandemic: according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, there were over 81,000 drug overdose deaths in the 12 months ending in May 2020. This is the highest amount of overdoses ever reported in the U.S. in a 12-month period.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said in a 2020 media release.
According to the CDC, 40% of adults reported struggling with substance abuse or mental health in June 2020. Young adults are one of the populations disproportionately affected by the increase in mental health issues.
Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is anywhere from 50-100% stronger than heroin, seems to be a driving factor in this horrific increase in overdose deaths across the country.
Data from the CDC, last updated in February, shows that California led the country in opioid deaths in 2019 (the most recent data available) with 6,198 overdose deaths, equivalent to just over 25 percent of the current OCC population.
Another 2017 report by the OC Health Agency, entitled “Addressing the Opioid Crisis in Orange County,” said the overdose rate in OC is even higher than the statewide average.
The OC Health Care Agency’s “2017 Opioid Overdose and Death in Orange County” report stated that across OC, opioid-related incidents in emergency rooms has more than doubled since 2005, coastal and southern cities like Costa Mesa had the highest emergency room visit rates and also the highest likelihood of opioid-related ED visits of people between the ages of 18-24 and 25-34.
Considering those are the two most common age groups at OCC, this means opioid abuse and overdose – particularly fentanyl, are one of the biggest dangers our student population faces, especially when keeping in mind the toll of the pandemic on mental health.
OCC has not been immune to this epidemic: we lost two students living at The Harbour student housing to suspected drug overdoses in early Feb. Another resident was evicted for suspected dealing of fentanyl-laced drugs about a month ago.
Our students’ deaths profoundly sadden me, but a part of me is also enraged. These deaths were both predictable and preventable. Our administrators and campus leaders had access to these same statistics, same reports, and same studies. With that information widely known, what else could they have done differently?
The answer is simple: harm reduction.
What is harm reduction? It’s defined by the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration as “a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug and alcohol use.”
Examples of this include (but are not limited to) Narcan nasal spray (which temporarily stops the effects of an opioid overdose), needle and syringe exchange programs, fentanyl testing strips, methadone clinics, and even safe drug injection sites which have been successful in places like Vancouver, Canada. These initiatives have been linked to public health benefits, like the reduction of diseases such as HIV and overdose fatalities, with no subsequent increase in crime.
According to OC Health Agency’s 2017 report, “Addressing the Opioid Crisis,” the main barriers to people seeking help for their drug addiction included primarily preventative cost, social and personal stigma, long wait times for treatment beds, and not knowing where to go.
This is especially concerning when taking into account CalMatter’s reporting that states that the number of people seeking help related to opioid use at treatment centers and emergency rooms has decreased as a result of the pandemic.
At OCC, The Harbour is taking the right steps. On March 9, they hosted a drug education workshop in partnership with the OC Sheriff Department and OCC Public Safety. They also hung posters in common areas to encourage students to obtain Narcan, amongst other harm reduction tips.
While these are great steps, we simply cannot stop here. It’s time to take drastic action before another student life is claimed by overdose.
The OC Health Agency’s 2017 report “Addressing the Opioid Crisis” ended by recommending public officials develop a medication-assisted treatment (MAT) educational anti-stigma campaign to improve access to treatment services, amongst many other suggestions that OCC could adapt.
The stigma drug users face when coming forward for help is seen in the 2018 shut down of the only needle exchange program in OC by California courts. Despite its special battle with the opioid crisis, Costa Mesa was one of the cities that initially filed a lawsuit against the program. One year later, in 2019, California experienced the largest amount of overdose deaths on record.
Orange Coast College is a nationally acclaimed, highly respected educational institution. The enormous positive impact it has on many students’ lives, including myself, cannot be understated. For this reason, OCC has not only a duty but an obligation to be a leader in the community and act in the best interest of the demographic it represents. It must provide every student the opportunity to build a vibrant, shining future here at OCC and not let students like Amonie Palmer and Robert Stell slip through the cracks again.
OCC has an opportunity here to be a leader in reducing the stigma of harm reduction – to truly save lives and improve the lives of those suffering from drug addiction and abuse: to help our students be the best in every way that they can be, act as a beacon of hope for those suffering during a dark time in our community, and show students that OCC understands not only what they’re going through, but most importantly, cares enough to help.
It is not enough to encourage students to obtain Narcan on their own to use in cases of their friends, roommates, or loved ones overdosing. We’ve had two deaths on campus, There’s absolutely no reason for the security and management onsite at The Harbour not to be equipped and trained with Narcan in the event of a student overdose.
The OCC Student Health center should provide fentanyl testing strips to students free of charge. These strips detect the presence of fentanyl in any drug. A study conducted by John Hopkins University and Rhode Island Hospital/Brown University found that most drug users are interested in testing their drugs for fentanyl. During the study, 70% of respondents said they would modify their drug use behavior if they were aware of the presence of fentanyl. Organizations like the AIDS Project Los Angeles (APLA) could be partnered with to provide this service. At $1 a strip, it’s a small price to pay for students like Palmer and Stell to still be with us here today.
Finally, I encourage OCC not only to continue to provide drug education and resources to those at The Harbour but expand this initiative to reach all students and work to reduce the stigma against those coming forward for help.
Stopping students from taking drugs entirely is a battle authority figures will never win. The War on Drugs has been one of the biggest failures of the 20th century. However, steps can at least be taken to provide help to those who need it and keep our students as safe as they can be under the circumstances.
I hope that with these actions, we can ensure that when it comes to matters of mental health and substance abuse, no Pirate gets left behind again.