A crisis counselor with the San Diego Police Department arrives at a home where a young woman died of a fentanyl overdose earlier this year. Photo via OnSceneTV

By Reginald Washington and Rev. Tim Seery

The news is heartbreaking.

A recent spike in local fentanyl overdose deaths is responsible for 285 confirmed local deaths in 2020, a rate on pace to double the 152 deaths attributed to fentanyl overdose in 2019. Fentanyl has taken the lives of 268 men and 91 women in San Diego County this year. Sixteen of the victims were teens.

Reversing this devastating loss of life is not impossible. In fact, as Californians, we have the power to act. We have the power to save lives.

What gives us this lifesaving power? Two important state laws. The first, Assembly Bill 2760, empowers Californians to administer naloxone, a safe and effective antidote to opioid-related overdoses, to fentanyl victims. Known by its trade name Narcan, naloxone is available to Californians by prescription or furnished by participating pharmacies without a prescription. Simple training prepares laypeople, including family members and peers, to administer by injection or a nasal spray.

The second is California’s “911 Good Samaritan Law.” Passed in 2012, Assembly Bill 472, provides limited protection from arrest, charge and prosecution for people who seek emergency medical assistance at the scene of a suspected drug overdose.

This good news is timely. Having endured the fear and uncertainty of living during a global pandemic, and an accompanying rise in political and social unrest, San Diegans are facing this holiday season with feelings of increased stress, anxiety and loneliness. This perfect storm of emotional and mental instability leaves many people vulnerable to substance use addiction.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, four months into the pandemic, 40% of U.S. adults reported having experienced a mental or behavioral condition. This same survey reported 13% of respondents started or increased substance use to cope with the stress and emotions of living with COVID-19. The same CDC study found younger adults, people of color, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use and thoughts of suicide.

In San Diego County, the death toll from all drug overdoses, including fentanyl, has already exceeded last year’s total of 645, with 675 deaths confirmed through October. Sadly, more deaths are sure to be reported through the end of December.

San Diegans are wrestling with the constraints of a new shelter-at-home order just as they’re opening their hearts to the joy of the holidays. We’re all struggling to channel the season’s spirit of giving and believe in its promise of brighter days ahead. But our collective feelings of anxiety, isolation, and despair are felt even more profoundly by people struggling with addiction.

Sheltering at home shouldn’t prevent us from caring. This time of social isolation mustn’t diminish our collective responsibility to be a force for hope and compassion during these dark and uncertain times. ­­Instead of focusing on what we can’t do, let’s use this interval of time to understand the emotional triggers of substance use and translate that knowledge into becoming compassionate advocates for friends and loved ones who are struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.

Let’s promise to step forward, whenever possible, to prevent someone from making a personal choice that could harm them, or even end their life. Let’s prepare ourselves to administer naloxone and call 9-1-1 when we witness someone experiencing a drug overdose.

This holiday season, we have the power to give someone the gift of life. Isn’t that the most precious gift of all?

To learn how you can participate in free naloxone training, contact A New PATH at 619-670-1184 or april@anewpath.org.

Reggie Washington is the founder, CEO and president of Project A.W.A.R.E, a mentoring program committed to building emotional literacy, problem-solving and social skills in teens and young adults through restorative justice and trauma-informed practices. Rev. Tim Seery is the pastor of the Congregational Church of La Jolla.

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