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Spike in suspected heroin overdose deaths in Santa Rosa spurs public warning

Heroin overdoses have caused five deaths in Sonoma County in the past 10 days, according to Sonoma County Coroner's Office officials, who warned Tuesday the spike in fatalities could mean a particularly potent batch of the drug is on the streets.

The deaths of three men and two women all occurred in the Santa Rosa area, said Sheriff's Sgt. Spencer Crum.

“One commonality is they're all dying and appear to have recently injected heroin,” he said.

Final autopsy and toxicology reports are still pending, but coroner's officials Tuesday decided to release the information, believing heroin the likely cause and hoping to prevent another death, Crum said.

The five victims came from a range of age and social standing. The men were 28, 29 and 52 years old and the women were 27 and 66. Three - two men and one woman - were homeless. The circumstances of their deaths also varied. One died in a Starbucks bathroom.

The rash of five deaths since mid-April was a marked jump in the county's monthly totals. Two people died from overdosing on heroin in March and one person died in both January and February, according to coroner's statistics.

“This is definitely a spike for us. We have the occasional overdose death,” Crum said. “But it's not been like this in this short of time.”

The nine heroin overdoses so far this year also stand out when compared with the two such deaths in the first four months of 2016, according to the Coroner's Office. People also are dying from overdosing on drugs other than heroin; there were 15 such deaths in the same time period in 2016 and 21 deaths so far this year.

“Unfortunately, I'm not surprised,” said Mike Perry, Sonoma County's chief deputy public defender, who oversees the county's drug court that works with defendants who have drug problems and are facing criminal charges. Heroin addiction for years was an infrequent factor in drug court cases, overshadowed by people with methamphetamine problems. But there has been a dramatic shift over the last three or so years and most drug court clients now are heroin addicts, Perry said.

“It's just shocking. I've been doing this work for over 39 years and I've never seen a demographic shift like this,” said Perry. “It's turned so quickly. We're losing people. All my clients know people who've died.”

Sonoma County's spike in heroin deaths is a common story nationwide and internationally. An increase in heroin addictions, overdoses and fatalities, coupled with abuse and deaths from synthetic opioid drugs such as fentanyl, are reaching crisis proportions. In 2015, 12,989 people died nationwide from heroin overdoses, quadrupling the number of annual deaths since the start of the century, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Because of how the data is reported, it can be difficult to distinguish heroin from other drug deaths. According to California Department of Public Health data, in 2015 there were 15 deaths due to heroin overdoses in Sonoma County, the majority men.

An online search Tuesday showed rising heroin deaths in a variety of places - from Chilton County, Alabama to Delaware and British Columbia. U.S. legislators are making a bipartisan push for a bill to give U.S. Customs and Border Protection $15 million to improve efforts to find synthetic opioids coming into the county from Mexico and Canada.

Santa Rosa police narcotics officers have been responding to an increase in opiate-related cases in recent years and have made multiple arrests of heroin dealers, including high-level suspects.

“Just like everybody else, we're trying to battle this opioid epidemic,” said Santa Rosa Police Sgt. Rich Celli, who oversees drug investigations. “We've been talking about opiates for the last couple of years. We're working them more and more now. It just seems like it's everywhere.”

A recent shift seen by narcotics officers has involved heroin users moving toward nonpharmaceutical fentanyl. The synthetic drug is cheaper than heroin, available online and is known to be stronger than morphine and heroin.

But heroin sold on the street is growing in potency, especially when cut with illegally made fentanyl.

“They're kind of playing Russian roulette with fentanyl, with the way the dealers are cutting it, because it's not pharmaceutical grade,” Celli said.

In Santa Rosa, all fire engines and ambulances carry the drug Narcan, a prescription antidote for opioid overdose.

“It's not an uncommon occurrence for paramedics to arrive at a scene and find somebody who was ingesting some sort of opiate, which depressed their respiratory system,” said Santa Rosa fire Battalion Chief Mark Basque. “A quick administer of Narcan will reverse the effects of the opioid.”

But increasingly, Basque said, the Narcan dosage isn't keeping up with more potent heroin and fentanyl mixtures, and firefighters and paramedics are having to give a larger dose.

The warning released by the Coroner's Office is directed at heroin and opioid users more than the general public, said Dr. Karen Milman, the Sonoma County health officer. County Health Services are spreading the word to counselors and care providers.

“We're getting the information out as best as we can,” Milman said. “People are going to be most responsive when the hear it from someone they trust.”

Staff Writer Nick Rahaim contributed to this report.

You can reach Staff Writer Randi Rossmann at 707-521-5412 or randi.rossmann@pressdemocrat.com.

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