CEDAR RAPIDS — Police saw a significant spike in drug overdoses in November, leading to concerns that heroin mixed with — or replaced entirely by — the much more potent fentanyl had hit the city’s streets.
Sgt. Robert Collins, commander of the Cedar Rapids Police Department’s Narcotics and Vice Unit, said there were of eight drug overdoses reported to police last month. Of those, five occurred between Nov. 5 and 6 and three more were reported between Nov. 21 and 23. None were fatal, he said.
Typically, Collins said, the city’s police receive reports of three to four overdoses a month.
“We know there are many more overdoses in the city that we don’t hear about,” he said.
So far this year, Collins said the department has fielded reports of 40 overdoses. Of those, Collins said, a majority — 24 — occurred at residences. The others took place in public spaces, such as parking lots, alleys, restaurants, government buildings, school campuses and gas stations.
September and October each saw one fatal overdose, Collins said.
Hard to Investigate
Most overdoses in Cedar Rapids are suspected to be from opioid use, and fentanyl is commonly mixed into the product, Collins said.
A spike in reports like the one in November can be the result of a “bad” or particularly potent batch of dope.
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“It’s common that when there is a spike, it’s usually because someone is selling heroin that is cut with fentanyl, and sometimes it’s not heroin at all, it’s just straight fentanyl,” he said. “So then you have users that are shooting up the same amount of the drug as they normally would, but the fentanyl is 50 times stronger, and the result is an overdose.”
Oftentimes, Collins said, the spike can be attributed to one source.
“Most of the heroin that we see here is brought in from Chicago.” he said. “Someone will go up and buy an ounce or two, depending on how many buyers he has, and brings it back to Cedar Rapids and sells it off in ½-gram or 1/10-gram bags. Within in a couple days that person will likely sell out and make another trip to Chicago.”
The fact that the drug moves quickly can make the source of an overdose spike difficult to trace and nearly impossible to intercept.
“Usually, by the time we’re hearing about or seeing the spike, the product is already distributed,” Collins said.\
Non-fatal cases rise
Every day, more than 190 people in the United States die as the result of drug overdoses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Of those, nearly 70 percent involve opioids, particularly synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
In Iowa, the numbers are significantly lower.
Data from Linn County Public Health shows the number of fatal opioid overdoses in the county has remained relatively stable.
But the number of non-fatal overdoses — which often result in visits to an emergency room or admittance to a hospital — is increasing.
According to a recently released opioid data report, Linn County saw 34 fatal opioid overdoses between 2016 and 2017. That’s down from 42 deaths between 2014 and 2015. About half those opioid-related overdose deaths involved illicitly-manufactured fentanyl, the report states, and many involved multiple substances.
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Data collected over the past several years show that a majority of the overdose deaths recorded in Linn County occur within Cedar Rapids, with the greatest concentration of overdose cases taking place within the southwest quadrant 52404 ZIP code.
Victims of fatal overdoses ranged in age from 18 to 81, according to the data, with individuals between the ages of 40 and 54 making up the largest portion. White men accounted for 64 percent of the overdoses between 2016 and 2018.
Most non-fatal overdoses result in a trip to the emergency room or admittance to a hospital, both of which have increased significantly between 2013 and 2018. According to the data, there were 20 emergency department visits and 36 admissions in 2013. In 2018, those numbers rose to 70 emergency room visits and 60 admissions.
A majority of the overdoses treated in the emergency department involved heroin, followed by other types of opioids such as prescription drugs or methadone.
While overdose numbers fluctuate, Sarah Ziegenhorn, executive director of the Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition, said the opioid problem in Cedar Rapids remains “100 percent the same.”
“I wouldn’t say things have gotten worse, and I wouldn’t say they’ve gotten better,” she said.
The Iowa Harm Reduction Coalition encourages drug users to adopt harm reduction practices. Those could include testing drugs for fentanyl or keeping doses of naloxone — a drug that reverses opioid overdoses — handy.
The organization frequently distributes tests strips that can detect fentanyl and naloxone kits.
In the past two years, Ziegenhorn said the organization has distributed tens of thousands of fentanyl test strips as well as more than 30,000 doses of naloxone.
Naloxone also is available for free through the mail under a program announced this month by the Public Health Department. For details, see naloxoneiowa.org.
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