Teen overdose deaths skyrocketed during COVID pandemic, UCLA study shows

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Friday, September 23, 2022
Teen overdose deaths skyrocketed during pandemic, UCLA study shows
Experts and health officials say not only are fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills more accessible, they're also more dangerous.

LOS ANGELES (KABC) -- Two recent drug-overdose deaths involving high school students in Los Angeles County has local health officials sounding the alarm on deadly narcotics illicitly offered to teenagers.

The latest research reveals California to be the epicenter of the teen overdose crisis. Experts and health officials say not only are fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills more accessible, they're also more dangerous.

The overdose death of 15-year-old Melanie Ramos at Bernstein High School in Hollywood this week was not an anomaly. Another overdose death involving a teen was reported in La Puente. UCLA substance abuse researchers say it's sadly becoming the norm.

"The rate of overdose deaths among U.S. teenagers nearly doubled in 2020, the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, and rose another 20% in the first half of 2021 compared with the 10 years before the pandemic," according a UCLA news release on the research.

"These are very concerning trends, we've never seen anything like this in the United States," said Dr. Joseph Friedman, an addiction researcher at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA.

MORE: Recent overdose deaths of teen students in LA County underscore dangers of contaminated pills

Counterfeit street drugs laced with fentanyl are causing more deaths among teenagers. Researchers say it's becoming a new normal for California.

Friedman said his study reveals the recent emergence of fentanyl-laced counterfeit pills that look like Xanax, Percocet or Adderall appeal to young people.

"It's not teens who have an addiction. It's not teens who have a substance abuse disorder. It's really teens who are just experimenting with drugs," he said.

"Someone can literally be experimenting. Take one pill and if that pill happens to contain fentanyl, they can tragically die," said Dr. Gary Tsai, director of the L.A. County Department of Public Health's substance abuse branch and control.

In a new health alert, health officials advised parents to have a frank discussion with their kids.

READ MORE | 2 teen boys arrested after girl, 15, fatally overdoses at high school campus in Hollywood, LAPD says

Two teenage boys have been arrested after a 15-year-old girl fatally overdosed at a high school campus in Hollywood, authorities announced.

Experts said teens need to know about harm-reduction strategies.

"It's very important to have naloxone on hand. Again, naloxone is the opioid overdose reversal medication. Very similar to how an epinephrine pen can work for anaphylactic allergic reactions," said Tsai.

"I always recommend that they keep it in their glove box or in their car," Friedman said.

Another tool for harm reduction are fentanyl testing strips. Studies show knowing if pills are tainted have prevented overdoses.

"Unfortunately, the harm is happening. We are seeing a huge number of teen overdoses in this country, and it's time for us to be realistic and present accurate information to teens on how they can stay safe," Friedman said.

While this can affect anyone, Friedman said his data shows the counterfeit fentanyl pill crisis has truly become a social justice issue. His report finds overdoses of this nature is disproportionately affecting Latinos, Blacks and Native Americans.

READ ALSO | LA DEA official says teen's overdose death highlights dangers of fentanyl-laced pills among youth

"Know that these pills that are being sold on the street now, 100% of the time, are fake," he said. "Parents need to have conversations and let these kids know. We need to empower them with information."

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