Lake, Mendocino counties have highest overdose death rates in California

Lake County had the highest rate of fatal overdoses statewide in 2019, a statistic local health and law enforcement officials say underscores a long-standing issue of substance abuse in the community that they are working to address.

The data, released this month by California Health Policy Strategies, a Sacramento-based consulting firm, shows Lake County’s overdose death rate leads the state, with more than 60 deaths per 100,000 people, more than triple the statewide average rate of 19.6. Mendocino County came second on the list with an overdose death rate of just over 40 fatalities per 100,000 people, followed by San Francisco County, which trailed right behind.

Allison Panella, the executive director of Hope Rising Lake County, a nonprofit that works with local health care providers, government leaders and other organizations to improve the well-being of Lake County residents, said mitigating substance abuse within the community has been a focal point for the nonprofit and its allied partners since 2014.

Part of the group’s approach involved distributing more than 1,600 Narcan kits throughout Lake County between 2019 and 2020, efforts that were directly tied to the reversal of 40 overdoses, Panella said.

Narcan is a potentially lifesaving drug that’s administered as a nasal spray and works by blocking the effects of opioid drugs.

In 2015, Hope Rising staff and the group of allied partners, known as SafeRx, also helped establish a set of countywide prescribing guidelines intended to help health care providers reduce the risk of drug prescriptions for pain management treatment.

Data posted on the Hope Rising website shows Lake County’s opioid overdose death rates dipped from 26.9 per 100,000 people in 2015 to 11.5 in 2016 before trending upward again. The rate was 22.7 deaths per 100,000 people in 2018.

Data also shows the county’s residents are among the poorest in the state, important context in the conversation about Lake County’s high overdose death rates, Panella said. There’s a correlation between bleak economic outcomes and behavior-related conditions known as the “diseases of despair,” one of which is substance abuse, she added.

“This is something that we’ve been working on for five years and its still an uphill battle,” Panella said.

The California Health Policy Strategies report notes that overdose deaths in the state have increased by half since 2017, outpacing a national increase in overdose deaths of 15% in that same time frame.

Fentanyl, a powerful synthetic drug, was identified as a major driver behind the statewide increase in the report, which said overdose deaths related to that specific type of drug have spiked by 541% in the past three years, elevating it to the primary cause of opioid-related deaths.

Fentanyl has been connected to some Lake County overdose deaths in recent years, though methamphetamine and heroin continue to be the most common culprits, Lake County Sheriff’s Office Lt. Corey Paulich said.

The agency operates a narcotics unit that oversees investigations into drug crimes, though it’s currently staffed at 50% while the office works to fill 11 vacancies within its deputy sheriff’s ranks, Paulich said. The Sheriff’s Office is allotted 44 deputy sheriff positions overall, he added.

“We would love to be doing that, to be able to have some special units to address those issues and save people,” Paulich said. “But at this point, we’re doing all we can to address the calls we get every day.”

He added that every deputy in the county has been trained to administer Narcan, which they carry when they’re on patrol. Deputies gave the medication to a female inmate who was overdosing at the Lake County Jail on Feb. 6, an incident she survived, Paulich said.

“It’s something that happens a few times a year, at least,” Paulich said of drugs entering the facility. “We do our best to keep narcotics out.”

The drug death rate was 2.5 times higher for men than women throughout the state, according to the California Health Policy Strategies report. Native American and Alaska Natives saw the highest rates of fatal overdoses in their communities at about 34 deaths per 100,000 people.

Black Californians saw 27 overdose deaths per capita, the second highest among racial and ethnic groups.

In Lake County, the SafeRx team is looking into more equitable approaches to combating substance abuse after seeing data that suggests Lake County’s minority communities are more impacted by substance abuse issues, Panella said.

You can reach Staff Writer Nashelly Chavez at 707-521-5203 or On Twitter @nashellytweets.

Nashelly Chavez

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, The Press Democrat 

Who calls the North Bay home and how do their backgrounds, socioeconomic status and other factors shape their experiences? What cultures, traditions and religions are celebrated where we live? These are the questions that drive me as I cover diversity, equity and inclusion in Sonoma County and beyond.   


UPDATED: Please read and follow our commenting policy:

  • This is a family newspaper, please use a kind and respectful tone.
  • No profanity, hate speech or personal attacks. No off-topic remarks.
  • No disinformation about current events.
  • We will remove any comments — or commenters — that do not follow this commenting policy.
Send a letter to the editor

Our Network

The Press Democrat
Sonoma Index-Tribune
Petaluma Argus Courier
North Bay Business Journal
Sonoma Magazine
Bite Club Eats
La Prensa Sonoma
Sonoma County Gazette