Fentanyl behind overdose death spike in Iowa, officials warn

By: - July 12, 2022 4:11 pm

Gov. Kim Reynolds, right, speaks about the danger of fentanyl at a news conference July 12, 2022. More people are overdosing from fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills in Iowa and across the nation. (Photo by Robin Opsahl/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

More Iowans are dying of fentanyl-related overdoses than ever before, Iowa health and public safety officials said, which is why the state launched a campaign encouraging Iowans to avoid counterfeit pills.

Gov. Kim Reynolds hosted a news conference Tuesday, detailing Iowa’s rising overdose death rates related to fentanyl. The state has seen a 120% rise in overdose deaths for people younger than 25 since 2019, according to the Iowa Department of Health and Human Services.

When Iowans overdose from fentanyl, it is often not because they are suicidal or trying to take a large dose, Iowa Public Safety Commissioner  Stephan Bayens said. Instead, it’s because deadly quantities of fentanyl are being used in drugs sold as something else – typically, as an opioid like OxyContin.

Father speaks of losing son to accidental overdose

Taking a drug laced with fentanyl killed Sebastian Kidd, a 17-year-old who died of an accidental overdose in 2021. His parents, Deric and Kathy Kidd of West Des Moines, attended the news conference. Deric Kidd recounted his experience finding his son slumped over in bed July 30, 2021.

He said his son did not want to die. Sebastian took half a pill of what he apparently believed to be Percocet, an opioid, not realizing it contained lethal amounts of fentanyl. If the dose actually had been Percocet, as Sebastian apparently thought, he would still be alive, his father said.

“He was poisoned, for lack of a better term,” Kidd said.

That’s why parents need to talk with their kids honestly about drug use, and the dangers of fentanyl, he said. Children are always going to defy their parents, Kidd said, and simply believing your child won’t make those decisions is not enough.

“Please don’t look at someone that has lost a child and think, ‘That won’t happen to my kid,’ ” he said. “It does not discriminate. It doesn’t matter what demographic you are from. It doesn’t matter who the parents are. Trust me when I tell you, you don’t want to feel this pain.”

Reynolds responded to Kidd’s remarks with tears and thanks for sharing the story.

DCI: Four times more fentanyl pills identified so far this year

Sebastian Kidd’s death was one of many in Iowa and across the nation directly caused by fentanyl in counterfeit pills. In the first half of 2022, Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation has already identified four times more fentanyl pills disguised as prescription drugs than in 2021.

Overdoses are more common with fentanyl than other opioid drugs because of how potent it is, Dr. Dennis Klein, the state medical examiner, said. Just two milligrams of the substance may be lethal, and Klein said the drug could cause overdose symptoms within seconds of ingestion.

The nationwide opioid epidemic equipped many law enforcement agencies and health care responders with Naloxone, a narcotic which can be used in emergency situations to prevent a person from dying of an overdose. But the drug is often less efficient at stopping fentanyl overdoses, Klein said, sometimes only working for a half hour, and requiring two or three doses to take effect.

In many cases, he said, people who die from fentanyl did not even know they were taking the drug.

“The majority of these deaths, you must remember, were determined accidental,” Klein said. “The person did not intend to harm themselves, the person did not intend to die.”

The way to stop fentanyl deaths is by stopping drug trafficking, Bayens said. The commissioner said many of these illicit pills containing the drug are from “pill mills” outside the U.S., and said the people bringing drugs into Iowa communities were to blame for these deaths.

Bayens agreed with Deric Kidd’s assessment of his son’s death. “He wasn’t an addict, he was killed,” Bayens said. “He was killed by drug traffickers. That’s a violent offense. And we’re going to treat it as such here in Iowa.”

The only way to ensure drugs are not laced with fentanyl is to only take drugs which are prescribed by a doctor and procured from a safe, verified pharmacy, officials said.

Reynolds encouraged people struggling with addiction and concerned parents to seek help using Your Life Iowa, a free, confidential support service.

She called on the national government to take action. Reynolds said President Joe Biden must secure the U.S.-Mexico border to stop the influx of drug trafficking across country lines. She also praised U.S. Sen. Chuck Grassley’s work on the “stop pills that kill” act, bipartisan legislation imposing new penalties on counterfeit pill production.

Grassley and members of the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing in Washington, D.C. Tuesday on how to combat drug trafficking. “It’s clear we need more tools to fight sophisticated transnational criminal organizations,” Grassley said in his opening remarks at the hearing. “We can do this by modernizing and strengthening our laws to beef up our drug enforcement and money laundering tools.”

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Robin Opsahl
Robin Opsahl

Robin Opsahl is an Iowa Capital Dispatch reporter covering the state Legislature and politics. They have experience covering government, elections and more at media organizations including Roll Call, the Sacramento Bee and the Wausau Daily Herald.