Two of Montana’s biggest agencies, the Department of Public Health and Human Services and the Department of Justice have joined together to address an alarming number of fatal fentanyl overdoses that have occurred in just a few days.

KGVO News first spoke with Injury Prevention Program Manager for DPHHS Maureen Ward, who provided the fatal overdose numbers that have occurred in the state in just a short number of days.

“We started noticing in late May an uptick in fatal overdoses likely due to opioids,” began Ward. “Between May 22 And June 1, we noted between our EMS (Emergency Medical Services) data and our partnerships with law enforcement that there were eight fatal overdoses, and just to give some perspective, between January and March of this year, we had eight fatal overdoses so to see a 10 day period with the same numbers is definitely concerning.”

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Ward said the fatal overdoses have almost all been tied to fentanyl tablets.

“In most of these fatal overdoses, they were related to what we call the M-30 blue pills and they are illicit fentanyl that's coming into the state and so most likely fentanyl related opioid overdose deaths. The other thing that seems to be a contributing factor is that these folks seem to have been using by themselves, and so when they did experience an overdose there wasn't someone else there who could assist them by calling 9-1-1 or utilizing Naloxone or Narcan to reverse that overdose and help save their life.”

Ward described some of the symptoms of a fentanyl related overdose.

“When someone is experiencing an overdose, they are going to be more sluggish or they may lose consciousness,” she said. “Likely in most cases they're going to, if it's related to opioid, then they're going to stop breathing. They will have very small pupils. Their pupils will be very small. They may even sound or look like they're choking, and become very limp. Their skin may be cool to the touch or even pale or light blue in color.”

Ward then described a new partnership with the Montana Department of Justice in an effort to battle the fentanyl epidemic in the state.

“We have a very exciting new program called the Opioid Response Strategy that has made its way to Montana,” she said. “So we have a great partnership between our drug intelligence officer from the Department of Justice and our public health analysts. It's a contractor with us over at DPHHS and they are right now working on a lot of data surveillance so that we can continue to increase our ability to detect overdose outbreaks in real time. I think a lot of it right now is focused around data collection and really working to educate on both sides to make sure that we are doing everything we can to help folks who are in need.”

KGVO also spoke to Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen who related the law enforcement aspect of the fatal fentanyl overdoses.

“Our DCI investigations for fentanyl have gone up 2,000 percent,” said AG Knudsen. “Just between 2020 and 2021, our state crime lab we've confirmed a 1,100% increase in fentanyl deaths in Montana. This is just what we're seeing. This is the drug cartels in Mexico mass producing this stuff for pennies on the dollar and they come up to Montana and they're selling it for very, very high margins up here.”

Knudsen said the overdoses may be due to a particularly bad batch of fentanyl that came into the state.

“There are super labs in Mexico and they don't use consistent products,” he said. “They're getting raw fentanyl ingredients from China. But they also oftentimes mix whatever other garbage they've just got laying around, and press it into a pill to make it look like a tablet. It’s usually dyed blue. We call them M-30s on the street, because they're made to look like an authentic oxycontin pill, but they're not.”

Knudsen also said the fentanyl is primarily manufactured in China, which led Knudsen to speculate on why the U.S. population is being targeted with the potentially fatal drug.

“We have to ask, why are the Chinese supplying the Mexican drug cartels with the raw fentanyl ingredients?,” he asked. “I certainly think that's part of the Chinese strategy. For the cartels I get a lot of Intel. I receive quite a few briefings from the various task forces. I think with the cartels that it’s truly just the profit motive. After all, you can manufacture a Fentanyl tablet for probably less than 25 cents, and they can sell it on the Fort Peck Indian Reservation for probably $100 per tablet.”

Knudsen praised the effectiveness of the overdose treatments available to law enforcement as well as the public.

“Getting Narcan out to all the departments; all the sheriff's offices and police departments, that's a big step,” he said. “Narcan is just an amazing chemical. It's an opioid inhibitor. At a molecular level, it stops that chemical from attaching to the receptors in your brain, and it actually reverses the effects of opioid overdose almost immediately, so if we can find someone who's overdosing and is about to die and we deploy that Narcan quickly enough, you can actually revive that person very quickly.”

DPHHS said the fatal overdoses occurred in Cascade, Custer, Gallatin, Lake, Lewis and Clark and Yellowstone counties and involved persons aged 24 to 60 years old.

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