It was a chilly February night in Omaha, but the party in the apartment near 72nd and Grover Streets was just heating up.
Someone pulled out some cocaine. But unbeknownst to the users, the illicit drug was laced with fentanyl, a synthetic drug so powerful that an amount small enough to fit on a pencil tip can be enough to kill.
When Fire Department medics were later called to the apartment, they found four overdose victims sprawled inside.
The medics were able to revive two and rush them to hospitals. But two others — both women in their 30s — were pronounced dead at the scene, adding to a grim recent toll.
Law enforcement officials here and nationally say fentanyl has been fueling an epidemic of drug overdose deaths.
Through the first six months of this year, there were at least 26 overdose fatalities in Omaha, including 11 during the month of February alone.
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Nationally, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration says there have been some 108,000 overdose deaths in the last 12 months — more than enough people to fill Memorial Stadium on a football Saturday.
That’s also four times as many who die from homicides in America each year, and more than twice as many as are killed in motor vehicle accidents. Overdoses both here and nationally have emerged as a silent killer — most such deaths known only to the families directly impacted by them.
Methamphetamine remains the drug of choice in Nebraska. But officials believe as many as two-thirds of all overdose deaths today involve fentanyl. The cheap but potent synthetic opioid is being baked into fake pills made to look like prescription opioids, or mixed into other drugs like meth, heroin or cocaine.
“These fake pills, fentanyl mixed with other things, are climbing at a significant rate,” said Justin King, the special agent in charge of the Omaha field office of the DEA. “No city or town, be it rural or urban, big or small, is immune to this substance.”
Fentanyl represents just the latest wave of the opioid epidemic first sparked in the 1990s by the easy availability of prescription opioids. According to the most recent federal data, accidental drug overdoses in Nebraska are up eightfold over the past two decades.
But unlike the prescription pills that initially sparked the opioid crisis, those using the fake pills or other drugs containing fentanyl can’t be sure what dose they are getting.
Fake pills made to look like prescription oxycodone are actually laced with fentanyl, a potent opioid.
Sometimes there’s a little fentanyl. Sometimes there’s a lot. The international drug cartels producing the pills aren’t necessarily known for their quality control.
“It’s Russian roulette,” said Lt. Steve Fornoff, who leads the Omaha Police Department’s narcotics unit. “You are taking the chance of overdosing and dying.”
Law enforcement officials and other partners are treating fentanyl as both a public safety threat and a public health crisis, seeking to take the drugs off the street and educate the public of the overdose threat.
They’re also touting the importance of naloxone, a medicine that in an emergency can rapidly reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.
Law enforcement and public health officials note the accidental overdose deaths are cutting across all age groups, with those ages 35 to 64 in Nebraska actually dying at higher rates than those 15 to 24. The overdoses also impact people of all races, with Whites accounting for the vast majority of Nebraska victims.
“It’s happening to all demographic groups, all races, all parts of town, all socio-economic groups,” Fornoff said. “It doesn’t differentiate at all.”
Andrew Schroeder was a smart, funny, laid-back kid who easily made friends. He also wasn’t afraid to try new things.
So when a friend in 2011 offered the college freshman a prescription oxycodone pill, he took it. He was unaware he had a previously undiagnosed medical issue that would make it difficult for his body to metabolize the drug.
The 18-year-old was found dead the next morning in his college dorm room, one of thousands of victims of the nation’s opioid epidemic.
“It’s a lifelong sentence for parents and families who have to go on after their child or loved one passes away from a drug overdose,” said Andrew’s mother, Stephanie. “It changed every cell of my body.”
There’s no doubt the nation’s opioid addiction crisis hit other parts of the country much harder than Nebraska. The rates of abuse and overdoses here have been a fraction of those nationally.
But Nebraska certainly has not been immune.
According to Center for Disease Control and Prevention data, between 2000 and 2020, annual deaths from accidental drug overdoses in Nebraska spiked from 22 to 177 — an increase of 705%.
The first wave of the opioid crisis began in the 1990s when pharmaceutical firms began aggressively marketing opioid pain relievers, which they claimed carried low risk of addiction. The pills became freely prescribed for many types of pain.
The powerful drugs were soon abused, with addicts shopping for doctors willing to write prescriptions. Teens seeking the drugs would steal them right out of their parents’ medicine cabinets.
The second wave of the epidemic began in 2010 after a crackdown on the loose prescription of the opioids. Addicts turned to heroin, a cheap, widely available illegal opioid. Overdose deaths continued to climb.
Now the nation is in the third, most lethal wave of the crisis, fueled by fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a prescription drug said to be up to 100 times more potent than morphine and 50 times stronger than heroin. It’s typically used to treat patients with severe and chronic pain.
Drug cartels, mostly based in Mexico, began to produce fentanyl to meet U.S. addicts’ unmet demand for prescription opioids. The drug was pressed into pills made to look just like prescription pills, a common form being blue pills stamped with “M30” much like oxycodone tablets.
The DEA says lab testing has revealed as many as four in 10 such pills contain at least 2 milligrams of fentanyl, a potentially lethal dose.
Now drug dealers are mixing fentanyl into heroin, cocaine and meth because it’s both cheaper to produce and more addictive, the DEA’s King said. One UCLA researcher recently described the nation’s illicit drug supply today as “a toxic mess.”
Given the potency of fentanyl, that’s often proving fatal.
Between 2019 and 2020 alone, accidental overdose deaths in Nebraska spiked nearly 50%, with the isolation and social malaise from the COVID-19 pandemic also likely contributing to that toll.
More recent trends tracked by Omaha police suggest overdoses have remained high since. Omaha had 60 overdose deaths in 2020, 56 last year and is on roughly the same pace this year.
In addition, nonfatal overdoses this year appear headed for a record high. For every fatal overdose in Omaha, about 10 overdoses are not fatal.
Often the overdoses and deaths come in “mass overdose events,” which can occur when batches of drugs with high doses of fentanyl are peddled in a community.
In Lincoln a year ago, police traced at least 35 overdose cases and nine deaths to fentanyl-laced cocaine that had been stolen from the Nebraska State Patrol’s crime lab.
Many of the 11 deaths in Omaha in February were likely similarly linked to lethal batches of drugs.
The same weekend as the February Omaha overdose that killed two, seven died in a single incident in St. Louis. A week earlier, nine died on a single Washington, D.C., block.
Just two weeks ago, another mass overdose event occurred in Omaha. Three victims were found in a home in North Omaha. Two died, with the third saved only through administration of multiple doses of naloxone.
“It was pretty scary how close she was to death,” Fornoff said. “If not for the person calling in (to 911) from this party, she would not have survived.”
Narcotics investigators probing overdose events try to trace the drugs back to the dealers and ultimately to the cartels supplying the drugs. Complicating such efforts is that the pills today are frequently bought and sold online in the dark reaches of the internet.
Still, just during the first six months of 2022, DEA agents seized more than 150,000 pills in Nebraska, double the 83,000 seized in all of 2021. Some 32,000 were seized in Omaha in a single two-day period.
Investigators with the DEA in Omaha seized about 32,000 fake pills, some laced with lethal doses of fentanyl, in a two-day span beginning July 8.
“We know we have a product out there people are dying from,” King said. “We’re trying to hold those accountable who are pushing this poison in our community.”
The DEA and Omaha police are in the early stages of setting up a task force to focus on fentanyl. But law enforcement officials are also treating overdoses as the public health crisis they’ve become.
The agencies are trying to educate the public on how lethal fentanyl can be, including through the DEA’s “One pill can kill” campaign.
Obviously, Fornoff said, officers would prefer that people stop abusing drugs, and if addicted, get into treatment. But if they are going to use, he encourages them to not do so while alone and to have naloxone present.
Naloxone, also called by its trade name Narcan, has been made widely available in area pharmacies, often for free. As a nasal spray or injected, the drug can be quickly administered when opioid users develop severe sleepiness or shallow breathing — the signs of an overdose.
Fornoff believes overdose deaths would be much higher in Omaha were it not for the increased availability of naloxone. This year, about 6% of overdose cases in the city have resulted in death, down from 10% two years ago.
Fornoff also points out that Nebraska’s Good Samaritan Law provides immunity from drug possession charges for people who call 911 to report that they or someone they know is experiencing a potential drug overdose.
“Our focus is trying to make sure people don’t die,” he said.
Schroeder said the situation today is even more scary and dangerous than it was a decade ago when she lost her son. She now serves on the board of Coalition Rx, a local nonprofit working to prevent the abuse of prescription drugs.
As another tool in that fight, Coalition Rx is in discussions with the Douglas County Health Department about setting up a county opioid fatality review board.
Such boards have been established in other cities and states to look into the circumstances behind overdose deaths. The idea is to identify trends that can lead to new public health and law enforcement strategies to protect the public, said Edward DeSimone, a professor of pharmacy sciences at Creighton University who also serves on the board of Coalition Rx.
DeSimone, who teaches about addiction and substance use disorders, said the key is to try to keep people from using in the first place. As with most drugs, he said, once use and abuse becomes addiction, the vast majority of people are powerless against it.
“They think, ‘It’s only a prescription drug,’” DeSimone said. “That’s a mindset that’s killing a lot of people today.”
Our best Omaha staff photos & videos of July 2022
Allison Pulaski hula hoops in the crowd at Maha Festival on Friday night.
Sasha Quattlebaum and Kirsten McCormack show of their rollerskating skills at the entrance of Maha Festival on Friday night.
Maha Festival 2022 wraps up with headliner Beach House on Saturday.
Princess Nokia, an American rapper, dances on stage on Saturday at Maha Festival.
Festival goers watch Friday’s headliner Car Seat Headrest perform at Maha Festival.
Tony fish lay dying in a puddle in a mostly dry Platte River bed underneath the Highway 81 bridge south of Columbus, Nebraska on Thursday.
Nick Soulliere, right, poses for a portrait with his daughter Kennedy, 11, Highway 81 bridge south of Columbus, Nebraska on Thursday. They were four-wheeling in a mostly dry Platte River bed.
Jaren Frost picks up a fish from a puddle underneath the Highway 81 bridge in a mostly dry Platte River south of Columbus, Nebraska on Thursday. Frost was hoping by moving it to a deeper puddle to the east, he could spare the fish from the fate of the one behind him.
A car heads south on the Highway 81 bridge over a mostly dry Platte River south of Columbus, Nebraska on Thursday.
People used beach towels to mark spots early in the morning at Memorial Park before the Sheryl Crow concert that night on Friday.
A butterfly drinks nectar from a flower at City Sprouts Community Garden on Friday. The property has been certified by the National Wildlife Federation as an official Backyard Wildlife Habitat site because it provides the four basic habitat elements needed for wildlife to thrive: food, water, cover, and places to raise young.
A family of ducks swims across the pond at Fontenelle Park on Saturday evening.
A man fishes at Spring Lake Park on Saturday.
Barrels remain at the site the site of Nox-Crete located at 1415 S 20th which burned to the ground on May 30th, 2022.
A newly renovated building at 24th and Ohio Streets is part of the historic North 24th Street business district that is undergoing a revitalization.
CharDale Barnes poses for a portrait next to his business, Stable Gray, in a newly renovated building at 24th and Ohio Streets on Tuesday.
Dr. Sarah Woodhouse with the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium gives Vera, a 5-year-old tiger, a COVID booster shot at the safari park.