Breaking News
More () »

County in Crisis | A closer look at fentanyl-related deaths in San Diego

More than 1,770 people have died from fentanyl in San Diego County since 2019. CBS 8 looks at the ages and places where the crisis has taken hold.

SAN DIEGO — A 13-year-old dead at a Kearny Mesa hospital. The cause of death: "Acute Fentanyl Intoxication." 

A 15-year-old found dead in a Pacific Beach apartment. The cause of death: an accidental overdose of fentanyl, alprazolam, and alcohol.

A 32-year-old collapsed and died at a Jack in the Box restaurant in Oceanside from fentanyl and alcohol intoxication.

Another 32-year-old found dead inside a portable toilet at Harborside Park in Chula Vista.

Meanwhile, a 50-year-old collapsed and died inside a public restroom at Fanuel Beach on the bay in Pacific Beach.

These, are just five of the 1,772 fentanyl-related deaths that the San Diego County Medical Examiner's Office has recorded since January 2019, according to public records that CBS 8 obtained and analyzed.

The deaths span the entire county, affecting almost every community and zip code.

What is Fentanyl? 

What started out as a powerful painkiller used for those suffering from terminal diseases, the manufacture of synthetic fentanyl has turned into a quick and cheap high for all ages.

The synthetic opioid is estimated to be 50 times more powerful than heroin and nearly 100 times more potent than morphine. According to Drug Enforcement Administration estimates, one kilogram of fentanyl can produce 1 million to 1.5 million pill dosage units. 

Just two milligrams of fentanyl, which is equal to 10-15 grains of table salt, is considered a lethal dose, according to DEA.  Without laboratory testing, there is no way to know how much fentanyl is concentrated in a pill or powder.  

In recent years, drug cartels and others have begun manufacturing fentanyl illegally. According to the CDC, the illegally manufactured opioid is often mixed with other drugs because of its potency and low cost as well as its highly addictive qualities.

Fentanyl is a nationwide problem

In response to the high number of deaths, law enforcement across the nation, as well as in San Diego County, have fought to raise awareness of fentanyl's dangers.

The Centers for Disease Control now lists it as the "number one killer" in the nation for those between the ages of 18-and-45, more than car accidents, and heart disease.

According to the CDC, 57,834 people overdosed on synthetic fentanyl in 2020. That number jumped to 71,238 last year.

Last November, Mayor Todd Gloria issued an executive order in hopes of curbing the number of fentanyl-related deaths in San Diego. 

"We will not make or accept excuses for letting this crisis grow out of control," said Mayor Gloria. "We’re going to own this and make sure we’re tackling it at every level, local, state, and federal." 

It will be an uphill fight.

According to the San Diego County Medical Examiner's data, the number of deaths in the county coincided with the proliferation of synthetic fentanyl. In 2019, the medical examiner recorded 143 accidental deaths from fentanyl. That number more than tripled the following year to 450. In 2021, it jumped by more than 57% to 779 deaths. And last year, the number of deaths fell again to 410, however, numerous deaths have yet to be added for 2022 as the Medical Examiner has not yet finalized its investigation.

A deeper dive into the numbers

What started out as a powerful painkiller used for those suffering from terminal diseases, the manufacture of synthetic fentanyl has turned into a quick and cheap high for young adults.

In San Diego County, the vast majority of deaths from accidental overdoses occurred in those between the ages of 25-to34 years old.

Nearly half of those between the ages of 25-through-34 that died, 235 out of 535 that overdosed, were found in their homes or apartments, or the homes of others.

According to the Drug Enforcement Agency, one reason for the rise in deaths in younger adults is due to illegal manufacturers producing pills that are colorful and made into various shapes, something the DEA refers to as, "Rainbow Fentanyl."

Fentanyl deaths for ages 25-34

The greatest number of deaths that occurred for those aged 25-through-34 though, happened in the 92103 zip code, which is comprised of San Diego's Uptown Communities such as Hillcrest, Bankers Hill, North Park, Mission Hills, and University Heights.

Nearly half of those between the ages of 25-through-34 that died, 235 out of 535 that overdosed, were found in their homes or apartments, or the homes of others.

Fentanyl deaths for those under 18

According to the data, the Medical Examiner found fentanyl was a contributing factor in 21 deaths for those under the age of 18. A total of 17 of the 21 finalized investigations occurred at home or the homes of others - the remaining happened at hospitals. 

According to the data, four of the 21 deaths occurred in the area around Kearny Mesa.

Fentanyl deaths for ages 35-44

The age group with the second highest number of accidental deaths where fentanyl was the cause or contributing factor happened in those between the ages of 35-and-44 years of age. 

Since 2019, thus far 448 people in that age group have died, with the greatest number of deaths occurring in and around Downtown San Diego.

Fentanyl deaths for ages 45-54

Of the 1,772 accidental overdoses, 268 were between the ages of 45-and-54 years old.

According to the data, many of those who were between 45-and-54 years old died outside in parks or on sidewalks across the county, a sign, according to city officials, that synthetic fentanyl was cheap and easily accessible for those experiencing homelessness.

A total of 64 of the 304 cases that were closed by the Medical Examiner's Office for that age group occurred in city parks, on streets, sidewalks, and in encampments throughout the county.

Fentanyl deaths for ages 18-24

Conversely, a large portion of the 183 people between the ages of 18-and-24 that died from fentanyl was at hospitals when they passed, according to the data.

More than 45 of the 183 in that age group died at San Diego County hospitals.

And while San Diego's downtown and Uptown communities typically outpaced deaths compared to other areas, large clusters of those who died between the ages of 18 and 24 passed away in South Bay cities of Chula Vista, National City, as well as in North County.

Fentanyl deaths for those over 65

And while historically accidental overdoses typically occurred in older individuals who suffered chronic pain and from terminal conditions, those over 65 years of age reported the second lowest number of deaths since 2019, according to the Medical Examiner. 

Before You Leave, Check This Out