Urgent Message from the MCPS School System Medical Officer Concerning Synthetic Opioids, Especially Fentanyl

by Patrick Herron

Montgomery County Public Schools sent out the following community message from MCPS Medical Officer Patricia Kapunan on Friday, December 9:
“Dear MCPS Community,
I am reaching out to make sure students, staff, and families are aware of a very dangerous trend in substance use affecting our community. Synthetic opioids, specifically illegally made fentanyl, are increasingly responsible for overdoses and overdose deaths. In 2021, over 70% of all overdoses in Montgomery County were fentanyl related including substances laced with fentanyl or substances that look like something else (e.g., Xanax, Adderall, Percocet, or oxycodone) but had fentanyl in them. MCPS continues to work diligently alongside local government authorities and community partners on a comprehensive and coordinated approach to this dangerous epidemic.

What is illicit fentanyl?

Fentanyl is a prescription medication for pain that is 50-100 times more powerful than morphine. The type of fentanyl driving overdose deaths is illegally made and sold in the form of powder, pills, liquid, or nasal sprays. Other drug products like marijuana, cocaine, heroin or illegally sold pills thought to be prescription medicine may be laced with illicit fentanyl, without the knowledge of the user.

Why are youth taking drugs, such as fentanyl and how are they getting them?

Teenagers and even younger children may use illicit substances for multiple reasons.  Experimentation or peer pressure may prompt a single episode of use that leads to further problems. Youth struggling with mental health symptoms, pain, or already using other drugs may be more likely to experiment or have problems related to substance use. With fentanyl, it is important to know that individuals may not even know they are taking it, as it is often incorporated into other substances. Drug traffickers may use fentanyl to increase the potency of their products. They also use social media to promote and sell drugs, making them more available to youth from peers or directly from online sources or through social media.

Why is illicit fentanyl so dangerous?

Because fentanyl is such a highly powerful opioid, very small amounts can lead to a potentially fatal overdose from even one use, and the person may not even know that the drug taken contained illicit fentanyl. The potency of fentanyl also means that individuals seeking temporary effects for relaxation, pain relief, or pleasure may find themselves quickly addicted. Once addicted, they may need to use as frequently as every 2-3 hours to avoid very uncomfortable withdrawal symptoms, including extreme nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, anxiety, sweating or chills.

What can adults do to help?

Parents and other caregivers can educate themselves and foster conversations with children about the dangers of drug use, specifically fentanyl and how to avoid use, family expectations around use, and the availability of help and support. Recognizing potential signs of substance use, trauma, and mental health symptoms will help youth and families access support earlier and help avoid dangerous or fatal outcomes.

Naloxone (Narcan) is an emergency medication given by nasal spray that can work instantly to reverse opioid overdose. It is important to know that the effects of naloxone are temporary and when used to treat an overdose, individuals will still need emergency medical attention (911). The effectiveness also depends on the potency of the drug and dose taken, so higher doses of naloxone may be required for powerful opioids like illicit fentanyl. Maryland’s Good Samaritan Law protects individuals from prosecution from certain crimes, who are providing assistance to another person experiencing a medical emergency related to alcohol or other drugs.

As part of ensuring medication safety in their homes, families should strongly consider keeping naloxone available, especially if they store prescription opioids or have concern that youth may be at risk for dangerous opioid use. Montgomery County residents can access naloxone, and training on how to use it, for free without an individual prescription.  If you would like training on naloxone administration you can register at this link. To access free naloxone, Montgomery County residents can call DHHS Harm Reduction Services at 240-777-1836.

What is Montgomery County Public Schools doing about illicit fentanyl in our community?

MCPS remains committed to a safe and substance-free school environment, and to our mission of supporting students and all those in our community who work to ensure their success and well-being. The Office of the School System Medical Officer is working closely with the Montgomery County Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) and other community partners within the Montgomery Goes Purple initiative to develop community-wide efforts in prevention, harm reduction, and treatment. These efforts include initiatives that broadly address substance use and mental health, and also focus on the specific problems of illicit fentanyl. Our shared goal is to ensure school-based programs integrate with local and county-wide efforts, which reach all children and families in our community.

The opioid crisis continues to have devastating effects nationwide and also in our community, and everyone can play a role in fighting this epidemic. Let’s take this opportunity to work together to protect our youth and families, and to advocate for their healthy future.

Patricia Kapunan, M.D., M.P.H.
MCPS Medical Officer”


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