2023 is SF's deadliest year ever for drug overdoses; solution to crisis may be in wastewater

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Friday, December 15, 2023
SF has reached all-time high of drug overdoses in 2023
Health officials say wastewater in San Francisco is now being tested for illicit drugs, without individual tracking, as a record 752 people have died from drug overdoses in the city so far this year.

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- ABC7 News learned Thursday that a record number of people have died from drug overdoses in San Francisco this year.

The previous record was 726 deaths in 2020, but the city just surpassed that.

Going forward, San Francisco public health officials announced a plan with the federal government to track wastewater, similar to what was done in some areas during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

So far this year, 752 people have died from drug overdoses in San Francisco; more than 80% of those cases are believed to have involved fentanyl, according to officials.

"We have seen record number of deaths due to overdose in San Francisco in 2023, or are likely to," said Dr. Hillary Kunins of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

MORE: Fentanyl seized by CHP in SF's Tenderloin enough to potentially kill 2.1M people, ABC7 News learns

If you live in San Francisco, your wastewater is now being tested for illicit drugs including fentanyl and tranq. But don't worry, no individual tracking is being done.

"San Francisco is specifically testing for fentanyl, methamphetamine, amphetamine, cocaine, and xylazine," said Dr. Jeffrey Hom of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.

"We expect the data to help us access trends, increase or decreases to help us predict what we might see in terms of non-fatal overdoses and fatal overdoses," said Dr. Kunins.

The wastewater surveillance program here in San Francisco just started this month and is part of a federal study by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. San Francisco is one of 70 cities involved.

Thursday night, a vigil was held in San Francisco for the unhoused individuals who lost their lives on the streets in 2023. While not all died of drug overdoses, new statistics show that nearly one-third of all drug overdose deaths in San Francisco this year involve those living on the streets with no home address.

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"Drugs in general are an escape for people, so anything we can do to minimize what's happening here will make the number of people we're remembering tonight shorter," said Michael Pappas of the San Francisco Interfaith Council.

While wastewater will be tested in these different cities, the tests are limited as they won't go so far as to tell you where in the city we're seeing the illicit drugs. Some argue that we already know these drugs are a problem in the city and continue to get worse.

But, San Francisco's Department of Health says recognizing trends can help with better drug prevention and that is something that can save lives.

"Allowing us to act faster when emerging substances like xylazine are increasing in the local drug supply, higher risk periods and more strategy during those periods," says Dr. Hom.

The wastewater testing program is scheduled to end in late August of 2024.

MORE: What is the current and future outlook on tackling SF's drug crisis?

If preliminary numbers hold, 2023 will set the record for drug overdose deaths in a year in San Francisco. Here are the stats:

2023: 752 (so far)

2022: 649

2021: 642

2020: 726 (prior record)

2019: 441

2018: 259

2017: 222

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