ST. LOUIS — The death toll has now climbed to seven from an apparent lethal strain of fentanyl in St. Louis.   

The St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department and the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) are conducting a joint investigation.  Investigators said they don’t know how much of this strain is out there or how many more people may die from using it.   

“I’m very concerned. We don’t know the breadth of this strain, mixture.  We believe it to be fentanyl,” said Dr. Dan Isom, the director of St. Louis Public Safety.

A seventh person died Monday morning.  All of the deadly overdoses have come in a pair of apartment buildings on Forest Park Avenue in the Central West End.  Six others died Saturday, police said.  Two survived their overdoses.  A pair of St. Louis firefighters who responded were treated at a hospital for exposure.   

“We’re working very feverishly to find out who is spreading this in the community,” Isom said. “When you purchase and use street drugs you really have no idea what components … what is in those “   

The DEA has included St. Louis on a list of 34 cities, including Midwest neighbors Chicago, Kansas City, Indianapolis, and Memphis, being targeted in a new initiative called “Operation Overdrive”.   

DEA data show an alarming rise in overdoses and associated violence in these cities.  Even with record drug seizures, the need for stepped-up enforcement is obvious, according to the DEA, especially with fentanyl.  It takes such a small amount to lead to overdose and death. 

“If you have a sugar packet that has a gram of sugar in it that is 1,000 doses of fentanyl, lethal doses of fentanyl,” said DEA-St. Louis spokeswoman, Andree Swanson.  “That is what we’re looking at here.  Both the overdose rate and violent crime are way too high.  It is not a list we want to be on but unfortunately, it is true for St. Louis.”

The DEA reports there are 275 overdose deaths daily in the United States, on average.  The number is unprecedented.  The agency also reports that in the United States last year more than 8,700  guns were seized in drug investigations.

Chad Sabora has been in recovery from substance abuse for 11 years and now advises the federal government on drug policies. He also helps those still struggling as Executive Director of the Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery. 

He said policies need to change in order to create a difference in the people who are losing their lives to substance abuse.

“People are dying, and we must act quickly,” Sabora said. “Unfortunately, we’re going to see this more often as years go by if we continue down the same policy tactics that we’ve always used.”

He said those who are using substances need to carry naloxone, because, as he said, people need to be alive to get help to recover.

He said his office offers naloxone free of charge to those who need it.

“The most important thing right now is to make sure that communities are flooded with naloxone and that people struggling with use right now know to never use alone,” he said. “People need to know there is an 800 number…You can call that number. Someone will stay on the phone with you. If you become unresponsive, 911 is called to the scene, and you cannot get arrested due to Missouri’s Good Samaritan Law.”

There are resources available to help those struggling with substance abuse. The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) has a free and confidential helpline at 1-800-662-4357.