Two McDaniel High School students died of suspected accidental fentanyl overdoses within 24 hours this week, setting off community warnings and a police investigation.
Portland Public Schools first put out an alert Monday night, telling parents of recent deaths involving students related to fentanyl-laced pills in the Portland area.
McDaniel Principal Adam Skyles wrote separately to students, faculty and staff and confirmed that two teenagers who attend the Northeast Portland school had died.
“We know this news is a shock, and we want to let you know that multiple resources are available for our students and staff as we process this news,” Skyles said. “As a community, we are focused on coming together while supporting each other during these difficult times.”
Portland police said they responded Sunday to a suspected death of a teenager who had counterfeit pills made with fentanyl. On Monday, Portland officers responded to another suspected overdose death of a teenager. Also in the teen’s possession were pills suspected to be manufactured with fentanyl.
Police and school officials didn’t say where the deaths occurred, provide any further information on the teens who died or if there was any connection between the two suspected overdoses.
Investigators from the Police Bureau’s Narcotics and Organized Crime Unit, along with federal agents from Homeland Security Investigations, are working to track down the source of the pills.
The medical examiner’s office hasn’t formally issued a cause of death in either of the cases as it is awaits the results of toxicology tests, according to police.
“The loss of the life of a child is beyond tragic, especially when it is suspected to be through something that is so preventable,” Acting Chief Mike Frome said in a statement. “We will do everything we can to further this investigation.”
The acting police chief asked for the public’s help to educate youths about the danger of taking any non-prescription pills.
“Even just one pill is lethal,” he said. Chief Chuck Lovell is out of town.
Fentanyl is a powerful, cheap opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Oregon Medical Examiner Dr. Sean Hurst told lawmakers in January that there were 237 fentanyl-related overdose deaths in the state during the first half of 2021, up from 230 during the same period in 2020 and a stark increase from the 75 recorded in the first half of 2019.
In Multnomah County, two young people under 18 died of fentanyl-related overdoses in 2020 and four in 2021, according to Dr. Jennifer Vines, the county’s health officer. In 2020, a total of 73 people died of fentanyl overdoses in the county. In the first nine months of last year, 139 people died of fentanyl overdoses, according to county figures.
Teens might buy what they think are legitimate OxyContin, Percocet or Xanax pills through social media sites or they might get pills from friends, and that can give a false sense of security, according to Multnomah County health officials. But these are almost always counterfeit pills made with fentanyl, which is odorless, tasteless and colorless, they said.
“The immediate message is for parents and teenagers to be aware that any pill that does not come directly from a pharmacy prescribed for you should be viewed as potentially laced with fentanyl and potentially laced with enough fentanyl to kill you,” Vines said.
Cheryl Proctor, Portland Public Schools’ deputy superintendent, urged parents to talk to their children about the dangers of the drug in an email sent to parents.
“These deaths are tragedies, and our heartfelt condolences go out to the families impacted. Sadly, substance abuse and overdoses are common in every community,” she wrote. “These are unfortunate situations, regardless of the circumstances. We want to share law enforcement’s and our concerns about the dangerous presence of fentanyl in our community and the urgency for families to talk with their children about drug use.”
Students who disclose substance use are exempt from discipline, she said. They are encouraged to speak with their counselor, school social worker, administrators or other trusted adults, her email said. Students and families can also report confidential concerns about substances circulating in the community by going to safeoregon.com.
Skyles, the McDaniel principal, said the school would have counselors and social workers available for students as a safe space in the school library and would work throughout the week to provide support options for students and staff.
The counterfeit pills are nicknamed “Blues” for their common color or “M30s” for the stamp on the pills. A stamp of “E7″ also has been seen in other recent overdoses, according to Multnomah County health officials. Other imprint codes commonly seen on counterfeit Xanax containing fentanyl include “S 903,” “B707,” “R039″ and “G3722,” they said.
A letter last fall from leading addiction medicine specialists in Oregon to Gov. Kate Brown urged a more robust government response to the escalating public health crisis.
The medical experts asked Brown to declare a state of emergency and cited national data showing overdose deaths linked to fentanyl had risen 45% in the previous 12 months. They pointed to anecdotal data that also showed an alarming rise of non-fatal overdoses in places like rural Oregon, where officials reported as many as 46 overdoses in a single month.
They noted that illicit fentanyl is quickly replacing heroin as the most commonly used opioid and that the drug contaminates methamphetamine and heroin supplies and “masquerades” as name-brand opioids.
They urged a public health campaign targeting parents and young people, increased distribution of naloxone kits that can reverse overdoses and the implementation of a coordinated statewide system that can rapidly identify and respond to increases in overdoses.
Dr. Todd Korthuis, a professor of medicine and public health and head of the addiction medicine section at Oregon Health & Science University, signed the letter along with eight other medical experts.
In an interview last week, Korthuis said the emergency declaration request was not granted.
Charles Boyle, a spokesperson for the governor, said by email Tuesday, “Every death due to fentanyl is a tragedy, and Governor Brown’s heart goes out to the families of the two youth who died of suspected fentanyl overdoses in Portland recently. Expanding access to behavioral health services and substance use disorder prevention, treatment, and recovery services are among Governor Brown’s top priorities, and we worked with the Legislature to make significant investments during the legislative session.”
Boyle said the governor expects to sign House Bill 4098, which passed this session and establishes a fund and board within the Oregon Health Authority to help allocate money for prevention, treatment and recovery services from Oregon’s settlement share of nationwide lawsuits against pharmaceutical manufacturers that have used deceptive marketing and failed to prevent misuse of prescription opioids.
The Oregon Health Authority reported to lawmakers that the state has one of the highest rates of misuse of prescription opioids, with a weekly average of five overdose fatalities, from pharmaceutical and illicit opioids.
“It is not clear at this point that an emergency declaration would bring meaningful new state or federal resources to bear that are not already available through the Oregon Health Authority and other state agencies,” Boyle said.
Korthuis, head of addiction medicine at OHSU, said doctors and school leaders are uniquely positioned to spread the message about fentanyl’s risks.
“We really need to be messaging this in very young kids, sixth graders,” Korthuis said.
Jennifer and Jon Epstein, whose son Cal died in Washington County in 2020 after taking a counterfeit OxyContin pill containing fentanyl that he bought through Snapchat, said parents need to understand that the drug landscape has shifted since they were teens.
The Epsteins have channeled their grief into advocating for public awareness about fentanyl’s dangers, working to get fentanyl-related curriculum into Beaverton School District; the district has made the material available to the public on its website.
“Kids are smart,” Jon Epstein said. “They’ll get the message and right now I don’t think that message is in schools. I don’t think parents know about this and that has to happen urgently.”
Young people, he said, are at “risk of dying at their first exposure.”
Last week, a Eugene man was sentenced to two years and nine months in federal prison for selling fake oxycodone pills made of fentanyl that killed a 20-year-old University of Oregon student, Emanuel “Manny” Dreiling, who was set to graduate this year.
-- Maxine Bernstein
Email at email@example.com; 503-221-8212
(Reporters Noelle Crombie and Lizzy Acker contributed to this report.)
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