Delaware opioid overdose deaths remain on the rise, with more than 80% of deadly overdoses in 2021 involving fentanyl.
While the synthetic opioid continues to be a persistent killer, officials are also warning of a new drug taking hold in The First State: Xylazine, a veterinary tranquilizer that frequently causes severe skin wounds that kill the surrounding tissue.
It’s better known by its nicknames “tranq,” “tranq dope” and “zombie drug.”
At a Wednesday afternoon news conference called to discuss the state of Delaware’s opioid epidemic, local health officials, addiction specialists and police painted a grim picture of the toll the epidemic is taking on the state.
In 2021, Delaware recorded 515 overdose deaths, a 15% increase over 2020’s 447 overdose deaths, according to Delaware Division of Forensic Science Director John Evans.
While last year’s numbers are not yet available, there were 406 confirmed overdose deaths in the first three-quarters of 2022, Evans said. That’s almost 9% higher than the 374 overdose deaths in the same time period in 2021.
Evans said his forensic lab is still awaiting the results from another 124 suspected overdose deaths in the last quarter of 2022. If confirmed, that would bring last year’s total to at least 530.
Health officials also reported late last year that in November alone, at least 43 people died from suspected overdoses. That’s the most ever recorded in the state in a given month.
The previous record was 42 deaths in a single month, which occurred in May of 2022.
“As you listen to the numbers and look at charts, the most important thing is that we recognize the numbers are people,” Lt. Gov. Bethany Hall-Long said Wednesday. “They’re our children, they’re are parents, they’re our loved ones.
“They’re our Tyler’s and our Greg’s, and I have to say the names because every number has a story.”
Offer treatment rather than arrest
Though Wednesday’s panelists – which included physicians, state health officials, police analysts and behavioral health and substance abuse specialists – largely presented a bleak outlook, the state is seeing some successes in helping those who struggle with addiction.
In early 2021, Delaware State Police, in partnership with the state justice department and the Delaware Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, launched a diversion program aimed at helping those who suffer from substance use disorder and mental health conditions receive the treatment they need.
There are four ways people can receive help from the program, said Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Director Brent Waninger. The first is simple: If they overdose, they’ll receive a referral. They may also be referred if they’re arrested, or police may do a pre-arrest diversion. Those struggling can reach out on their own, too.
A pre-arrest diversion, Waninger said, occurs for “minor criminal offenses that may have been motivated by a person’s addiction or mental illness and what’s best for them will be treatment rather than arrest.”
The program has already proved beneficial, Waninger said.
Just recently, a program staff member was informed by a state trooper in western Sussex County about a woman’s overdose.
When the staff member went to the woman’s home, he met her as well as her fiancé and asked if she wanted to go to treatment. When she answered yes, her fiancé said: “If she’s going, I’m going,” Waninger said.
The two entered treatment and have been sober for 60 days.
“When I follow up on these cases and I ask individuals, ‘What made you seek treatment?’ they say ‘I didn’t know anyone cared,'” Waninger said.
Programs like this, as well as the community outreach work done by Brandywine Counseling, is as much about preventing deaths and reducing drug-related crime as it is showing people that help is accessible to them, panelists emphasized Wednesday.
“Help us to help those to let them know that it’s OK not to be OK,” Hall-Long said, “and that when they need services, they are absolutely accessible.”
The rise of ‘tranq dope’ or xylazine
While outreach programs are working, panelists also stressed on Wednesday that they’re playing catch-up with xylazine in a similar manner to the way officials were unprepared for fentanyl when it started becoming increasingly prevalent.
“Just like fentanyl, (users) didn’t know it was in” their drugs, said Lynn Morrison, CEO of Brandywine Counseling.
“Then what happened with fentanyl is people ended up starting to reach out for it directly,” she continued. “We have not seen that happen with tranq yet – with xylazine – but it is certainly a concern and a trend that we all need to be looking out for.”
Aside from the wounds caused by xylazine, which can occur on body parts other than where a user has injected the opioid-laced drug and sometimes require amputation, the tranquilizer induces a blackout that lasts for hours. Users are then more vulnerable to sexual assault, robbery and other violence.
Once users wake, the high from fentanyl or other opioid is long gone and they crave more. Xylazine by itself is also addictive, officials have found, but because it’s a sedative and not an opioid, its effects cannot be reversed by opioid antagonists such as naloxone, better known by the brand name Narcan.
Evans, with the Division of Forensic Science, said the state lab does have the ability to test drug samples for xylazine as part of a criminal investigation. (Xylazine is not currently a controlled substance, however).
The lab does not have the ability, though, to test post-mortem samples.
“We’re always trying to play catch up with the newest and emerging trends,” Evans said, “and unfortunately, it’s not like flicking on the light switch. When we bring in a new method of testing a new drug, there’s a lengthy validation process.”
Evans added that he hopes by this summer, the state forensic lab will be able to test post-mortem samples for this emerging drug. But over-the-counter test strips that individuals can use to check their drugs for xylazine – as are available fentanyl – are a long way off.
Work also remains to be done in regard to fentanyl, which is up to 50 times stronger than heroin.
While officials acknowledged on Wednesday that police cannot arrest their way out of the opioid epidemic, the way Delaware statute is written now means there are no mandatory prison sentences for possession or sale of large quantities of fentanyl as there are for other Schedule II drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamine.
Delaware Department of Safety and Homeland Security Secretary Nathaniel McQueen said “we have proposed legislation to change that this year.” Still, it remains to be seen whether legislators will make any changes.
For resources or to get help, visit helpisherede.com or call the Delaware Hope Line at 833-9-HOPEDE. It offers free counseling, coaching and support, as well as links to mental health, addiction, and crisis services.
Got a tip? Send to Isabel Hughes at firstname.lastname@example.org or 302-324-2785. For all things breaking news, follow her on Twitter at @izzihughes_