In the community, Local government

Fentanyl overdoses remain common challenge for area first responders

VALE – The Vale Fire & Ambulance Department recorded a surge in medical calls in 2023 attributed to the older population and an upswing in overdoses from fentanyl use.

Fire Chief Jess Tolman said the number of responses to fires remained steady but a “little bit of everything” put the ambulances on the road more often in 2023.

“Vale is an older community. A lot of people are on Medicaid and use the ambulance more as a taxi type of service,” he said.

In 2022 the department responded to 604 medical calls. In 2023 the ambulance rolled 666 times, he said.

While Tolman did not have statistics specifically regarding overdose calls, he said they were “significant.”
“In the last few years, I’ve used Narcan more than I have in the past 20 years as an EMT,” he said.

Tolman said his medics are “probably seeing one or two overdoses every month.”

Often, he said, when medics arrive on the scene of an overdose either the victim’s family or friends have already administered Narcan. Narcan is the brand name of naloxone, a nasal spray used to treat an opioid overdose.

Tolman said the rise in overdoses is “frustrating.”

“We can roll in and recognize an OD faster that we could ten years ago,” he said.

Tolman said he noticed an uptick in overdoses about the time the Covid pandemic ended.

“Whatever triggered it, it was bam, we are running ODs. There was no gradual work up to it,” he said.

Before 2020, Tolman said he “probably administered Narcan three of our times.”

“It wasn’t drug overdoses like we see now. It was grandma accidently doubled up on her medication. It wasn’t heroin or fentanyl,” he said.

Tolman said the number of overdoses calls “kind of upsets us.”

“It is not 30- or 40-year-olds. It is 18-, 19 -and 20-year-olds. There is an occasional older adult but it is the younger kids being targeted,” he said.

Heather Land, vice president and chief financial officer for Treasure Valley Paramedics in Ontario, said her agency doesn’t track overdose calls. Land said anecdotal evidence indicates overdose calls for Treasure Valley Paramedics are common.

“I’d say fentanyl overdoses have steadily been climbing,” said Land.

Hannah Woods, the Malheur County Health Department’s health promotion and prevention specialist, tracks some statistics from the county regarding overdoses and said the rate of local overdoses is much higher than reported.

“The majority of overdoses that are happening are happening without any call for EMS (emergency medical services),” she said.

Woods said since January the health department traced at least 60 overdoses that were not reported to local agency service providers.

“We are having them more. Sometimes upwards to 20 a month that are not calling EMS (emergency services),” she said.

Woods confirmed Tolman’s estimate the fentanyl problem began about the time the Covid pandemic ended.

“In 2019 fentanyl was very rare. Within six months it was just here and everywhere,” said Woods.

State statistics provided by Woods showed in 2023 Oregon recorded 1,049 overdose deaths.

“Overdose deaths are the highest they have ever been and 2023’s data is not yet complete,” said Woods.

News tip? Contact reporter Pat Caldwell at [email protected]

Previous coverage:

Coalition seeks solutions, strategies to address local overdose dilemma

Drug task force arrests three local residents in Ontario raid

Police launch crackdown on illegal drugs, weapons with Ontario raid

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