Law enforcement officers located fentanyl hidden inside fence posts surrounding a property associated with Javier Castro Banegas-Medina in Oakland, Calif., on May 25, 2021. Officers found approximately 19 kilograms of fentanyl at two locations. (Photo courtesy U.S. Attorney's Office)

Santa Clara County officials announced Friday the establishment of a working group that will focus on reducing local deaths due to the highly potent opioid fentanyl.

The working group plans to begin meeting April 15 and launch public information and outreach campaigns to ensure county residents understand the danger the drug can pose.

Fentanyl overdose deaths in the county rose from 29 in 2019 to 90 in 2020 and 135 in 2021, according to data from the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s office. The county has also already recorded eight fentanyl overdose deaths this year.

Supervisor Cindy Chavez, a member of the working group, noted Friday during a briefing to discuss the group that many of the county’s fentanyl deaths are among teenagers and young adults, as well as a 12-year-old girl who died in late 2020 after taking a fentanyl-laced pill.

“No one is immune from this deadly drug, regardless of your background, regardless of where you live,” Chavez said. “It’s infiltrating our schools, colleges, homeless encampments, our parks and our community at large.”

As part of the working group, county officials plan to determine the best ways to reach young county residents on the dangers of fentanyl-laced drugs and the utility of fentanyl test strips and the opioid overdose medication naloxone.

“We recognize that young people get information very differently than their parents,” Chavez said.

Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, is typically prescribed to treat severe pain is and roughly 50 to 100 times more potent than morphine, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Many fentanyl deaths in the U.S., however, have been tied to illegally made and trafficked versions of the drug. Other drugs may also be laced with fentanyl, which can be lethal even if ingested in small amounts.

Edward Liang, the supervising deputy district attorney for the county District Attorney’s Office’s Major Crimes and Drug Trafficking Team, said local narcotics investigators and law enforcement officers have seized thousands of fentanyl pills across the county.

“Eventually we hope to have a coordinated counter-response investigating the fentanyl poisoning deaths (in Santa Clara County),” said Liang, who is also a member of the working group.

The working group will also include District Attorney Jeff Rosen, county Superintendent of Schools Mary Ann Dewan, county Coroner Dr. Michelle Jordan, parents of teenagers and young adults who have died from a fentanyl overdose and officials from the county Behavioral Health Services Department, county Executive’s Office and the San Jose Police Department.

According to Chavez, the group will advise the county Board of Supervisors on the best ways to combat fentanyl use and trafficking and enable the relevant county departments to work collaboratively in the coming months.

Bruce Coakley, the director of access and unplanned services for the county’s Substance Use Treatment Services Division, said the county also does not plan to target fentanyl users in its efforts to combat the drug, arguing that addiction should be treated as a public health issue.

“The use of drugs is a chronic relapsing health condition just as diabetes and heart disease is,” Coakley said. “And if we don’t understand the health side of this, we’re never going to resolve this issue.”