SAN RAMON (KPIX) — During the COVID pandemic, according to a new CDC report, the United States has set a record when it comes to overdose deaths.
Nationally, there has been a 30 percent increase. In California, the jump is nearly 45 percent. One reason involves a powerful synthetic opioid known as fentanyl.
The impact is not just on city streets but also among the young in prosperous suburbs.
A recent poll taken by the Kaiser Family Foundation during the pandemic suggests how curfews and lockdowns have taken a toll on young adults. One in four admits to abusing a substance to cope.
Tom Terry was one of the victims.
Tom grew up in Contra Costa County. His mother Denise Hale and sister Kristina Terry tell KPIX just how deeply he was loved.
“Women loved him, dogs loved him, children loved him. He was just beautiful on the inside,” Denise Hale said.
“He was an artist with dreams and goals and ambitions just like anyone,” Kristina Terry added.
Tom was a welder by trade and he had a good-paying union job.
“He knew that, future-wise, he would be set for life,” said his sister.
Then the pandemic hit. With the lockdown, all his jobs dried up and Tom began to worry about the rent.
“He was full of anxiety,” his mother said.
In July, Tom texted a friend, saying he was off to buy Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, from a dealer. His sister said Tom could not find a therapist to help him during the pandemic so he took a different route to find the drug.
“He thought they were legitimate and what he ended up taking was fentanyl and methamphetamine and it was about three times the lethal dose,” Denise Hale said.
The mother and son spoke every day but then, one day, Tom did not return his mother’s calls.
“I started to worry. I got to his house as quickly as I could and, when I found him, he was gone,” Hale said, tears welling up in her eyes.
Tom was dead at age 26.
“It consumes you. It steals your soul,” said DEA special agent in charge, Wade Shannon.
Shannon told KPIX how fentanyl is flooding the illicit drug market.
The opioid is sold as a powder or pressed into counterfeit pills like the one Tom took. A few specks can be lethal.
“Twenty-six percent of the pills we’ve tested at our DEA labs contain a lethal dose of fentanyl,” agent Shannon said. He told KPIX you no longer have to go into a dark alley to buy illicit substances. They are all available online. Shannon said the pandemic created the perfect storm for this crisis.
“Because of the pandemic, a lot of people have been at home, quite a few people lost their jobs and more people are on social media,” he said.
All you need is a digital device and some popular apps.
“It’s on TikTok. It’s on Snapchat. It’s everywhere,” said community member and mother Monica Kamran.
“If you know what you’re doing — and kids learn easily — they can connect with drug dealers really easily,” said mother and community activist April Rovero. Rovero and Kamran are with the National Coalition Against Prescription Drug Abuse.
They offer free kits of Narcan to treat overdoses to anyone who might need it.
“The pandemic, I believe, has accelerated the problem,” Rovero said.
The women told KPIX about a growing opioid problem with stressed-out teens and young adults living in Alamo, Danville and San Ramon. They said no one hears about some of these cases because they’re kept quiet.
“The parents are IT professionals, the children are excelling in academics,” Kamran said. She explained how many are from the South Asian community.
“It’s really hush-hush, because it’s a taboo. It’s a stigma to talk about in the South Asian community. The fear is: what will other people think of that,” she said.
It was in San Ramon where KPIX first met Debora Killeen and her son Kent. In 2016, Kent was battling an opioid addiction. Five years later, he’s still struggling. The COVID-19 lockdown threatened his progress.
He could access the methadone clinic but there were no in-person, face-to-face meetings with his doctors and counselors.
“There was no one to reach out to. We knew that things weren’t changing,” Debora Killeen said.
Kent has overdosed several times.
“Getting those drugs were so simple and so cheap it’s almost scary,” Kent said.
His mother says that, outside the methadone clinic in Oakland, drug dealers tried to hustle the patients and sell them drugs.
Debora said that, for Kent to get “in person” treatment, the family moved to Arizona during the pandemic, where there’s no wait list.
For Kent, the treatment is free.
“I’m thankful that I’m an addict in recovery,” Kent said.
As for Tom Terry’s family, they spoke to KPIX, hoping to educate others. They urge families to start talking to their kids and loved ones early on about substance abuse, so they never start in the first place.
“If it’s not in your hand, it doesn’t get into your body and you have a better chance — like a 100 percent chance — of living,” said Denise.
Experts told KPIX that parents should not hesitate to check their children’s cellphones or other digital devices to make sure they recognize their kids’ contacts.