USC spreads fentanyl awareness in wake of rising overdoses in Los Angeles

The university distributes test strips and Narcan to combat fentanyl overdoses

USC Team Awareness Combating Overdose (TACO) distributes Fentanyl Test Kits at the campus' Hoover-Jefferson entrance on Sep 27, 2022. (Photo by Colin Huang)

In a bid to combat a recent increase in fentanyl poisoning in Los Angeles, USC Student Health took steps to inform students and faculty of the availability of naloxone, which reverses the effects of opioids.

In a school-wide email sent out by Student Health for the upcoming International Day of Recovery, the university promoted Naloxone SC, a student health program that provides information and aid to USC students in preventing fentanyl overdoses.

Naloxone, the program says, is the main preventive method against fentanyl overdose. Narcan is one brand of naloxone that can be administered through a nasal spray. Naloxone SC offers training videos on how to administer the drug.

USC Student Health also offers fentanyl test strips as well as directions on how to use them and interpret the results. They are available for sale at the student bookstore and other online retail services. The organization Trojans Awareness Combatting Overdose also distributes test strips for 1 cent.

“This is not a new issue that’s emerging, but one that has been present for a few years now and certainly, we believe, is increasingly problematic,” said Dr. Sarah Van Orman, chief health officer of Student Health, in a press briefing Tuesday.

Student Health’s email comes on the heels of a recent spike in fentanyl poisoning in L.A. At least seven students in the Los Angeles Unified School District overdosed on potentially fentanyl-laced pills in the last month, according to the Los Angeles Police Department.

Melanie Ramos, 15, died last week at Helen Bernstein High School in Hollywood after overdosing on pills believed to have been laced with fentanyl, according to the Los Angeles Times. Police arrested two teen boys in connection with the overdose and death of Ramos.

To counter the rise in fentanyl overdoses, the LAUSD implemented a measure that will supply every K-12 school with naloxone in case of emergency use.

The United States Drug Enforcement Administration reports that fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is 50 times more potent than heroin. A lethal dose of fentanyl is two milligrams, the equivalent of 10-15 grains of table salt.

About 66% of the 107,622 overdose deaths in America last year were related to opioids like fentanyl, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Fentanyl can be colorless and odorless and can easily be laced into prescribed opioids without detection.

“If it didn’t come from your pharmacy, you don’t know what’s real or not,” said Madeleine Hilliard, founder of TACO. “So any drugs that did not come from your pharmacy must be tested for fentanyl, because it could contain fentanyl.”

TACO was founded in 2020 to provide education and resources to help minimize harm related to drug use. The organization passed out fentanyl testing strips at different locations around campus each week.

Despite the resources offered by Student Health and clubs like TACO, some students believe more awareness could be spread about the issue.

Ava Trepeck, a senior majoring in psychology, said that in her experience in Greek life, some students probably do know how to test drugs safely through groups like TACO. “But I don’t think everybody would…, so maybe it could be more widely encouraged to be talked about or bring awareness to it.”

“Student Health has a program where they do and can hand out free naloxone, which is great, and that’s why we work together,” said Katty Hsu, a clinical coordinator at the USC Health Center Pharmacy.

If an overdose occurs, bystanders can take steps to ensure the safety of those involved, she said.

“Unconsciousness, slow to no breathing and pinpoint pupils, you know it’s a fentanyl overdose. And that’s when you’re going to want to get your Narcan and call 911,” Hilliard said.

In the fall of 2019, three USC students overdosed in opioid-related incidents that included fentanyl, according to Van Orman.

Van Orman believes that students should be trained to administer naloxone, which is available without a prescription in California, and encourages people to look for recovery resources for themselves and their loved ones.