Annie Aguzzi: I’m studying fentanyl overdose risk in Utah. Here’s what I’m learning.

Annie Aguzzi

In the past six months, I have been responsible for designing and implementing a small-scale qualitative assessment of the perceived risk of fentanyl overdose in Salt Lake City.

In my research, I gathered experts in harm reduction and recovery services to learn more about what they deal with daily and to determine if the increase in fentanyl supplies along I-15 also increased overdose rates in Utah.

In interviews and focus groups, the participating providers expressed their thoughts, feelings, and concerns regarding the current wave of the fentanyl epidemic. I was moved to tears by some of the stories they shared during the meetings I moderated.

According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), in 2022 alone, 107,375 people died of overdoses and drug poisoning in the United States, a substantially higher number than the deaths caused by the HIV epidemic in 1995, which was close to 50,000, and nearly as high as the deaths caused by the COVID-19 pandemic during the first year, which was approximately 150,000. Each week, eleven Utahns die from drug overdoses.

These numbers are likely due to two factors: one, the use of synthetic opioids is on the rise, and two, the COVID-19 pandemic has caused an uptick in overdoses. Many faces and stories are associated with the fentanyl epidemic in this fourth wave, which is multidimensional and encompasses numerous disciplines ranging from public health to law enforcement. From my meetings with participants, key findings will serve as the basis for establishing individual and collective action plans.

In many cases, people are not aware of the extent to which their pills are laced with fentanyl. Most individuals who purchase pills on social media will believe they are prescription medications. It is common for teenagers to be unaware of the risks of buying drugs online. In this regard, patients and clients of participating providers reported that they believed their pills were at least 50% contaminated. The results of this study are consistent with those of previous studies.

Regarding the most common drug combinations causing overdoses in Utah, providers report that fentanyl and heroin are the most commonly observed, followed by fentanyl and stimulants. In addition, they have begun to see more cases of fentanyl and xylazine.

Providers report that families and friends are often unaware that their loved ones are using, taking, or purchasing pills on social media. Their clients conceal their addictions and typically “use” alone, which poses a grave risk to their lives.

Fentanyl’s epidemic raises other concerns. The high demand for fentanyl pills may also increase HIV and STDs. The literature indicates that at-risk women may choose not to use HIV PrEP as a preventive strategy due to their perception of low HIV risk and cultural opposition to PrEP.

Can you take any steps to keep you and your family safe?

Discuss with your children the risks associated with purchasing fake pills. Look for behavioral changes such as mood swings, lethargy, improper hygiene, and changes in appearance. Get more education. In Salt Lake City, highly dedicated harm reduction services will provide you and your family with the necessary assistance.

If you are experiencing substance use disorder, avoid using alone, as this will increase your risk of overdosing without a chance of receiving help. Furthermore, do not hesitate to seek aid; harm reduction providers in town will stand by your side and be available to assist you in any way you need.

What steps can the community take to ensure that everyone remains safe?

An effort should be made to respond compassionately and comprehensively to the fentanyl epidemic. This includes expanding harm reduction interventions and services, providing targeted educational training programs to increase awareness, reducing the stigma associated with substance use disorders, and redesigning HIV and STD prevention programs to include individuals from all sexual orientations and backgrounds.

Together, we can end the fentanyl epidemic by ensuring that all factors contributing to this crisis are properly addressed so that comprehensive solutions can be developed for all Utahns.

Annie Aguzzi is an MSPH Candidate at the University of Utah Department of Family and Preventive Medicine, Division of Public Health. Her areas of research include traditional medicine, primary care, HIV and harm reduction.