Under Wichita’s towering landmark, the Keeper of the Plains, a group of grieving Wichitans gathered at dusk, lighting candles for loved ones lost to fentanyl.
Among the dozens of mourners at the recent memorial were Mark and Val Sandoval, who lost their son just weeks before his high school graduation after he took a single fentanyl-laced pill.
Isaac “Skinny” Sandoval was one of 192 people in the Wichita area who died from a fentanyl overdose in 2022.
The number of deaths continues to climb, but appears to be increasing at a somewhat slower rate than in the past two years.
“In my opinion, there is no downward trend,” said Shelly Steadman, the director of the Regional Forensic Science Center.
The deaths continue to pile up despite communitywide efforts to alert the public to the risks of accidental overdose from fentanyl — a drug 50 times more potent than morphine.
At the candlelight ceremony, the Sandovals told the story of how they lost their son when he unknowingly bought fentanyl-laced Percocet pills. For the past year, the couple has shared the story at every opportunity to increase awareness and, they hope, save lives.
“It could be somebody doing it for the first time ever, and you’re dead,” said Mark Sandoval, a former surgical nurse turned hospital administrator.
Deaths continue but rate appears to slow
Fentanyl deaths in the Wichita area tripled in 2020, going from 28 the previous year to 90. By 2021, the number of deaths nearly doubled on top of that, rising to 162. The final tally for 2022 stands at 192.
Steadman said that while the numbers are still preliminary, she expects the final tally for 2023 to be at roughly the same level seen in 2021 and 2022.
Sedgwick County’s Regional Forensic Science Center statistics show deaths by overdose unrelated to fentanyl within the four counties of the Wichita metro have remained relatively steady. Meanwhile, overdoses involving fentanyl increased more than eightfold between 2018 and 2022.
What’s next in the fight against fentanyl?
The Sandovals have been at the forefront of a community effort to bring the numbers down, hammering home just how easily fentanyl overdose can happen to anyone.
Mark Sandoval uses an analogy that compares the presence of fentanyl in other drugs to chocolate chips in a cookie: You can’t know how much might be in one bite. Unevenly distributed fentanyl mixed into other drugs can mean that one pill might be deadly when another is not. That was the case for Isaac. He shared three other pills with his friends. He got the only fatal dose.
Sedgwick County Sheriff Jeff Easter said the random lethality of fentanyl makes for an urgent problem demanding a new approach.
“We tried doing that ‘arrest everybody’ type of stuff in the ’90s and it just doesn’t work,” he said. “There has to be a law enforcement aspect to it, but there has to be another avenue.”
Rehabilitation services, he said, remain insufficient. But he said recent efforts in education matter. The “One Pill Can Kill” social media campaign, financed by private and public sources, is ongoing.
Yet that campaign draws skeptics. Ngoc Vuong is a harm-reduction activist with nonprofit Safe Streets Wichita. He’s also a candidate for Wichita school board. He would rather spend money on harm-reduction measures like distribution of naloxone — a drug that can reverse an opioid overdose.
“Like we’re telling kids ‘One Pill Can Kill,’” Vuong said. “But do we actually have any robust, evidence-based, substance-use prevention programs in the schools?”
Best use for $15.5 million?
Wichita and Sedgwick County have $15.5 million from legal settlements with various opioid manufacturers and distributors to combat opioid addiction, but no clear plan on how to use it, according to KMUW. They are reviewing proposals to choose someone to develop and implement a strategic plan.
“Some needs to go for prevention. Some needs to go for intervention,” Deputy County Manager Tim Kaufman told KMUW. “What’s the right ratio? Is it smart to spend on both?”
For Vuong, the harm-reduction advocate, the concern is that much of it will go to waste.
“My concern is that it’s gonna go to some overpaid consultant to tell us something that we already know,” Vuong said. “None of that is going to go back directly to the folks at the heart of the issue, at the heart of the solutions.”
He sees Safe Streets as central to that effort. The organization is in the preliminary stages of a proposal for naloxone vending machines throughout the city. Vuong said they’d be placed in areas of high need and ideally provide injectable and nasally-administered kits for free. The group hasn’t found a way to pay for the project yet.
The organization is also providing training in administering rescue breaths to victims of overdose instead of CPR, because CPR is meant to address cardiac arrest. Rescue breathing helps someone who has stopped breathing.
Understanding the scope of the fentanyl problem key to solutions
Local law enforcement officials have said they don’t know the scope of fentanyl use because of monthslong delays in getting autopsies and toxicology reports completed by the Regional Forensic Science Center. Steadman, the center’s director, has cited short staffing and outdated equipment.
Recent cash from the county’s share of the settlement against drug companies, however, has paid for a new mass spectrometer to increase efficiency in processing toxicology cases. The county has also hired a third full-time doctor in its investigations unit.
Steadman also wants to land grants to boost the agency’s ability to investigate overdoses more quickly by testing substances found in drug paraphernalia at overdose scenes. Those tests can sometimes be completed in a matter of weeks, compared to toxicology tests on victims that generally take up to three months or longer.
“Then we can know where we need to focus our efforts for prevention,” she said. “We know that’s not necessarily the drug that killed the person at the scene, but it’s still there and we can gather a lot of information about what else is out there.”
More to do in Topeka, harm-reduction activists say
It’s unclear what the impact might be from recent efforts in combating fentanyl fatalities at the city, state and national level.
The City Council barred Wichita’s law enforcement in September 2022 from enforcing a statewide ban on possession of fentanyl test strips. The Kansas Legislature legalized the strips in May.
Easter, the sheriff, had also said in a town hall in August 2022 that law enforcement within the county would not enforce the ban.
The new law lets pharmacies, online retailers and harm-reduction agencies distribute the test strips across the state.
Random checks by phone with CVS and Walgreens show no local availability, but around half of all test strip distributors on Amazon offer delivery to Kansas.
In late March, the FDA approved over-the-counter sale of Narcan, a nasal spray version of naloxone.
Vuong said fentanyl test strips could protect those less experienced with the drug from a fatal accident or unintended addiction. But he worries that Narcan producer Emergent BioSolutions’ plans to sell two-dose kits over the counter for $45 make them cost-prohibitive for most drug users.
A Beacon analysis in March found that before the bill legalizing fentanyl test strips became law, Kansas had enacted only one of four widely used drug harm-reduction policies, the fewest of any state. Several other states have passed two other policies intended to make addiction less deadly: legalizing syringe exchange programs and adopting a “good Samaritan” law that would protect bystanders who call for help for someone experiencing an overdose.
Can Democrats and Republicans agree on the fight against fentanyl?
State Rep. Nick Hoheisel, a Republican who represents District 97 encompassing the southwestern corner of Wichita, said he plans to introduce a Good Samaritan bill next year.
Hoheisel said he’s been encouraged by the amount of bipartisan support for the fentanyl test strip bill, despite some opposition from a few conservative colleagues.
He worked with a Democrat, Rep. Jason Probst of Hutchinson, on the test strip bill.
Hoheisel said he saw hesitance among some lawmakers and constituents who see harm-reduction efforts as an abandonment of tough-on-crime principles, but he argues that his support of a treatment-based approach is still within the framework of conservative ideology.
“We have to be pro-life for babies in the womb as well as somebody who may be struggling with addiction …(which) I look at as a mental illness,” he said. “When we look at holding folks accountable, it’s really hard to hold folks suffering from mental illness accountable.”
He said it’s far more important for distributors, manufacturers and drug dealers to be held to account than users.
Easter said intervention is needed at a higher level of government to cut off the fentanyl supply from the primary point of influx at the country’s southern border.
“We’re always gonna be behind the curve,” Easter said. “There’s not enough resources to take all the drugs off the streets.”
Two parents press on to create meaning in child’s death
While the life-or-death struggle against fentanyl overdose is far from over, the Sandovals say they are heartened to see their message breaking through to the public.
“I used to struggle with, ‘Is the youth really gonna hear us and listen?’” Mark Sandoval said.
Yet he said that across the many schools they’ve visited to share their story, most have listened in respectful silence.
Overall community engagement has also increased over the past year and a half since the couple embarked on their journey to make their story heard. The candlelight ceremony the two attended in August was the largest they’d yet seen, Val Sandoval said.
She hopes it’s proof that her son will have a lasting impact on the world, despite his premature death.
“I always want my son to watch from up above and know his life was important,” Val said. “I couldn’t save him, but I will never let him be forgotten.”
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