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Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco answers questions as city officials start public awareness campaign on the deadly fentanyl epidemic raging across the Inland Empire during a press conference at County Administrative Center in Riverside on Thursday, October 20, 2022. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Riverside County Sheriff Chad Bianco answers questions as city officials start public awareness campaign on the deadly fentanyl epidemic raging across the Inland Empire during a press conference at County Administrative Center in Riverside on Thursday, October 20, 2022. (Photo by Terry Pierson, The Press-Enterprise/SCNG)
Joe Nelson portrait by Eric Reed. 2023. (Eric Reed/For ɫ̳/SCNG)

The war against fentanyl is ramping up in the Inland Empire, with Riverside and San Bernardino counties both announcing public awareness campaigns or health advisories this week and collaborations with partner agenies to attack the deadly epidemic from all fronts.

During a news conference Thursday, Oct. 20, outside the Riverside County Administrative Center, officials rolled out the county’s “Faces of Fentanyl” public awareness campaign — featuring videos and a new website, — and discussed the latest death rates, drug seizures and criminal filings in an alarming trend now killing local residents by the hundreds annually.

338 deaths this year

Sheriff Chad Bianco said 338 fentanyl-related deaths have been confirmed so far this year.

“And we know that number will significantly increase as toxicology results continue to come in,” he said. “It will far exceed last year’s death toll of 407 people. This is an epidemic that demands our attention.”

Since Jan. 1, Bianco said his investigators have seized more than 3.7 million fentanyl pills and 398 pounds of fentanyl powder.

“If you don’t already know, let me tell you, that amount of fentanyl is enough to kill nearly 94 million people, or to put it into a better perspective, enough to kill the entire population of California, twice,” Bianco said.

Sheriff’s investigators have submitted 19 cases of fentanyl-related homicide to the District Attorney’s Office and four cases to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Bianco said, adding,  “We arrested another person for (fentany-related) homicide this morning.”

Since charging its first defendant with murder in a fentanyl-related homicide in February 2021, District Attorney Mike Hestrin said his office has charged 22 people with murder in fentanyl-related deaths.

“We must continue to prosecute these cases. It just might save someone’s life,” Hestrin said.

Multifaceted approach

Most stressed during Thursday’s news conference was the county’s pioneering and multifaceted approach to tackling the fentanyl epidemic from the criminal justice, recovery and rehabilitation fronts.

County Supervisors Karen Spiegel and Chuck Washington have formed a multidisciplinary committee to assess the current state of fentanyl-related deaths in the county.

“Our goal is to bring all the different disciplines together to share information, the data and resources, with the mission to prevent poisonings,” Spiegel said. “And we use that word poisoning, not overdose.”

Other county agencies have partnered in the effort, including Riverside University Health Systems, the county mental health and social services departments, the emergency management division, the county executive office, public health and the Probation Department.

The county’s emergency medical services team rolled out Narcan to all first responders, including EMS, fire and law enforcement, and it has proven to save lives, Spiegel said. “We must continue to save lives,” she said.

Public Health Officer Geoffrey Leung said overdose deaths in Riverside County doubled from 2017 through 2021, mostly due to fentanyl, with 50% of overdose deaths in 2021 attributed to fentanyl. Fentanyl-related deaths increased from 28 in 2017 to 406 in 2021 — an increase of 1,350%.

Leung said RUHS is using every resource it has to educate the public on the dangers of fentanyl, track the drug’s movement in county communities and treat those with substance abuse disorders.

The behavioral health department, Leung said, has established 13 substance abuse clinics across the county, with six programs tailored specifically for opiod use disorders, and the new Arlington Recovery and Sobering Center helps the addicted detox and transition into rehabilitation.

Riverside County isn’t alone in its fentanyl fight. Other counties across Southern California have started to join in the cause.

San Bernardino joins efforts

On Monday, San Bernardino County Public Health Officer Michael Sequeira to raise awareness on the dangers of fentanyl in light of increased overdose deaths, noting a 930% increase in fentanyl-related deaths from 2018 through 2021.

The number of fentanyl-related deaths increased each year, with 30 reported in 2018, 74 in 2019, 227 in 2020 and 309 in 2021.

Sequeira also warned about the emergence of “rainbow fentanyl,” pills and powders found in a variety of bright colors, shapes and sizes that target young people.

Several county departments, including Public Health, the Sheriff’s Department, District Attorney’s Office, the Behavioral Health Department and Arrowhead Regional Medical Center in Colton, which is the county hospital, have joined forces with community-based organizations, health care providers and schools to raise awareness and identify solutions to curb fentanyl use.

The county has also created a so the public can stay updated on what the Public Health Department is doing to address the opioid epidemic.

Mothers describe sons’ deaths

Christina Rodriguez of Winchester, who attended Thursday’s news conference in Riverside, said she lost her first-born son, Ernie Gutierrez, 24, to fentanyl poisoning on Aug. 24, 2021.

“Ernie was just starting in his recovery but fentanyl took him from me,” Rodriguez said.

She said her son graduated from Temecula Valley High School in 2004 and couldn’t wait to join the Marine Corps and carry on a family tradition of serving his country. The onset of his mental illness and depression surfaced in 2014, and he sought treatment.

But Gutierrez complained about the side effects of his prescribed medications, and instead turned to illegal drugs that wound up killing him, his mother said.

“When you have a son or daughter with mental illness, you never lose hope that one day they will get the right medication and help that every human being deserves,” Rodriguez said.

A sheriff’s deputy came to her son’s aid and connected him with the county’s behavioral health specialists. Rodriguez said they not only helped her son, but also helped her in understanding what goes on in the brain of someone suffering from mental illness.

“Ernie did not get to finish the program he started with Riverside mental health because fentanyl killed him,” Rodriguez said. “Fentanyl is murdering our kids. Fentanyl has no boundaries. It’s on our baseball fields, it’s on social media, it’s in the hands of our college students, it’s in our jails, it’s on the streets and in the hands of our mentally ill. … It’s impossible to avoid fentanyl.”

Laura Folsom of Riverside, who attended Thursday’s news conference, said her 23-year-old son, Christoper, died of fentanyl poisoning on Easter Sunday in 2019. Folsom said she appreciates Riverside County’s efforts, but believes more must be done.

“I think we’re doing better, but it’s not aggressive enough,” she said, adding that more needs to be done at the federal level in terms of funding and enforcement to stop the flow of fentanyl into the U.S. from China and Mexico.

“We’re allowing them to chemically slaughter us,” Folsom said.

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