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Fentanyl Contributes To Record Drug Overdoses In New York City

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Health officials say New York City is about to hit a new and pretty troubling benchmark. More than 1,000 people will die of a drug overdose this year. That's the highest number since the city started keeping this statistic 17 years ago. From member station WNYC, Mary Harris has more.

MARY HARRIS, BYLINE: Denise Paone tracks overdose deaths for the city. She says it's hard to know how this moment compares to, say, the crack epidemic of the '80s and '90s because the city only started tracking overdose deaths like this in 2000. But they have been bracing for this milestone for a few months now.

DENISE PAONE: So based on what we knew from the first two quarters, as well as the analysis that we just completed, we're confident that we're going to reach over a thousand overdose deaths for 2016.

HARRIS: The Department of Health thinks it does know what's making this year particularly dangerous - fentanyl. Fentanyl is an opioid, but it's much stronger than other painkillers. And until recently...

PAONE: Not more than 3 percent of overdose deaths involved fentanyl. Even when there were fentanyl outbreaks, we tracked it really closely in New York City.

HARRIS: Fentanyl abuse was rare enough that the chief medical examiner actually stopped testing for it regularly in 2013. But this July, they added it back to their regular toxicology screening. And they found that this year, half of all overdose deaths involve fentanyl. There's something else.

PAONE: For the most part, drug users are not aware that they're ingesting fentanyl, and they're not seeking fentanyl.

HARRIS: So users think they're getting cocaine or heroin or Vicodin, but they're actually getting something much stronger.

DANIEL RAYMOND: This is really an all-hands-on-deck situation.

HARRIS: Daniel Raymond is the policy director at the Harm Reduction Coalition.

RAYMOND: Because with heroin - or with prescription painkillers - the onset of an overdose can happen slowly over the course of several minutes or even an hour or two. With fentanyl, reports suggest that as soon as fentanyl gets in somebody's body, within a minute or two, they're overdosing.

HARRIS: And that's why New York has launched a new campaign to encourage drug users to carry naloxone, an emergency medicine that can reverse an overdose.

For NPR News, I'm Mary Harris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.