SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- For the past two years, we've been focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, but experts say during that time, there's been a silent killer in our streets that has taken more lives in San Francisco than COVID-19.
The latest data from the San Francisco Medical Examiner tells a grim story of the drug epidemic in the city. 46 people died from a drug overdose this January alone.
"We are seeing between 10-20 situations a day. It's not only patients coming into the emergency department. Patients who woke up with Narcan and refused to transport. Prior to the pandemic it may have been 10-15 range. So, it is increasing," said Dr. Chris Colwell, Chief of Emergency Medicine at Zuckerberg SF General.
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Dr. Colwell has seen a record breaking number of people dying from drugs in the past two years.
In 2021, 650 people died from a drug overdose. In 2020, the number was 712. The vast majority of those deaths involved fentanyl.
"For everyone that dies, we see five that didn't, but that are at risk for dying in their next ingestion," said Dr. Colwell.
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Fentanyl can be lethal in very small amounts. Dr. Colwell is also noticing how this synthetic opioid is getting laced with other drugs making its impact even worse.
In many cases, people refuse care.
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"Folks that died in 2020 from a drug overdoses approximately half had been in a fire department ambulance prior to their death," said Capt. Michael Mason, San Francisco Fire Department.
In 2021, the City of San Francisco launched the Street Overdose Response Team. Captain Mason oversees the fire departments section for the team. He said their efforts are working.
"Data tells us that deaths have plateaued, however drug overdoses continue to be an epidemic in San Francisco," said Capt. Mason and added, "We have fire department personnel actively engaging individuals immediately after an overdose. We have the department of public health staff following up with them. That critical time window directly after an overdose."
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City data shows the majority of overdoses are happening in the Tenderloin and Soma districts reflecting another aspect of this epidemic socio-economic and health inequalities.
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"Less than one percent of San Francisco residents are unhouse. They represent 30 percent of drug overdose deaths. About five percent of San Franciscans are Black individuals people of color represent 25 percent of overdose deaths," said Capt. Mason.
The San Francisco street overdose response team uses Narcan to save lives, but Captain Mason said very soon his team will be able to provide a pharmaceutical that also helps with withdrawal symptoms for those who are ready to stop taking opioids.