ST. LOUIS – There have been an alarming number of calls for drug overdoses in the St. Louis area in recent years. There’s a growing feeling that reversing course may go beyond “law and order.”  

Fentanyl continues to be a deadly driving force.  

Users may be looking for cocaine or methamphetamine, but 90–95% of the time they’re also getting fentanyl mixed into it, according to St. Louis County Public Health Director, Dr. Kanika Cunningham.  

While the number of drug overdoses is not necessarily climbing, it’s also not letting up.

An overdose call at the St. Louis City Jail on Thursday was the 40th for the St. Louis Fire Department in the past week. It was not fatal.  

St. Louis City Police have had 19 overdose calls for service in the past week.

St. Louis County Police reported 196 through the first 10 months of the year, compared to 235 over the same period last year.  It’s a welcome drop, but still hugely concerning. 

A reminder of why just came from Florida this week, where authorities intercepted 22 pounds (10 kilos) of fentanyl, which they say is enough to cause 5 million overdoses as small amounts are mixed into drugs like meth and cocaine to extend supplies and increase profits for drug dealers.

“This is a preventable chronic disease [among users],” Dr. Cunningham said.  

She specializes in “addiction medicine” and says we can’t simply police our way out of the opioid crisis.

“[There’s the] fears, there’s stigma. ‘I may get incarcerated’ … then individuals are going to use by themselves, which is a risk factor for an overdose because no one is there to administer naloxone to the individual to reverse the overdose,” Dr. Cunningham said.  

So, the county health department has given away more than 1,600 naloxone or “Narcan” kits so far this year. The kits are used to reverse overdoses. The department also now offers free kits to care for wounds from IV drug use with instructions on how to clean syringes to avoid spreading disease.  

The idea is to help make users more likely to return to the health department for treatment. 

Users are likely much closer to taking that step than most of us realize, Dr. Cunningham said.  

“It may just be that one time when someone says, ‘You know what, I think I may want to try [treatment] now,’” she said. “If they don’t, [then it’s] how can we keep you alive so I can bring you back the next day to continue to engage you in a conversation and build those relationships.”