Health

Emergency responders say fentanyl overdoses increasing in San Benito County.

The drug, many times stronger than heroin, is being put into counterfeit prescription medications, says Sheriff Eric Taylor.

This article was written by BenitoLink intern Juliana Luna

Drug overdoses are a growing epidemic nationwide and San Benito County residents are experiencing it first hand. 

Overdoses have spiked in the county the last year. Emergency Services of San Benito County reported 48 overdose calls in 2021. As of Aug. 14, ambulance personnel have responded to 42 calls for overdose, EMS Manager Kris Mangano said.

California stimulant and fentanyl overdose deaths from 2019-21.<br /> Graph by the California Department of Health Care Services.
California stimulant and fentanyl overdose deaths from 2019-21.
Graph by the California Department of Health Care Services.

Hollister Police Chief Carlos Reynoso told BenitoLink fentanyl use, specifically, is a growing issue in town.

“The problems with fentanyl use have consistently been getting worse. The open border might have something to do with what appears to be more and more fentanyl-laced drugs in our community and throughout our country,” said Reynoso. 

According to the California Department of Health Care Services, fentanyl accounted for 44% of all drug overdose deaths in California in 2020, and 71% of opioid overdose deaths.

Michelle Van de Mark dedicates space in her home for her son Nathan. It’s decorated with family pictures and angel wings. Photo by Juliana Luna.
Michelle Van de Mark dedicates space in her home for her son Nathan. It’s decorated with family pictures and angel wings. Photo by Juliana Luna.

From the first quarter of 2019 to the third quarter of 2021, fentanyl overdose deaths have increased by 365%. 

Among the victims in recent years was 18-year-old Nathan Van De Mark. His mother Michelle Van De Mark of Hollister described him as fun and daring. 

“Always happy and if he was in a bad mood it would’ve lasted for five minutes,” she said.

Nathan overdosed in 2017 on a street drug laced with fentanyl. Van De Mark and her fiance, Dawson Daniels, said he wasn’t into drugs. It was more of a “now-and-then” decision. However, “the pressure and the get-together sometimes got to him,” said Daniels. 

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, fentanyl is “up to 50 times stronger than heroin.” Dr. Reb Close at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula said that opioids are drugs prescribed to alleviate severe pain, mostly for cancer patients. 

Sergeant Bryan Penny of the San Benito County Sheriff’s Office told BenitoLink the Santa Clara County Medical Examiner confirmed 14 fentanyl deaths in San Benito County in the last six years. This year, there have been two confirmed cases to date. 

On July 30, 349 fentanyl pills were seized by the San Benito County Sheriff’s Department during a traffic stop on Hwy 101.

“Fentanyl is being used to lace many other drugs, including being put into counterfeit prescription medication,” said San Benito County Sheriff Eric Taylor. “The risk to our community is extremely large. Lives are at stake and our office is doing all we can to interrupt this drug being introduced into our community.”

Close said unlike drugs from a pharmacy, street drugs ingredients are not accurately measured. Two milligrams of fentanyl can be lethal, he said.

“One of the machines they use is a magic bullet blender, and they have no idea how much fentanyl is going into any pill,” said Close, a member of Monterey County’s overdose safety coalition, Prescribe Safe, which works with the San Benito County Opioid Task Force to prevent overdoses.

 

Fighting back

Amy Bravo and Micheal Salinas operate a 24-hour drug intervention  hotline. Photo by Juliana Luna.
Amy Bravo and Micheal Salinas operate a 24-hour drug intervention hotline. Photo by Juliana Luna.

Hollister residents Amy Bravo and Michael Salinas recently founded Youth Recovery Connections to do drug intervention, prevention, education and awareness to youth and families in the county. 

Since its launch on Aug. 1, the group has helped 20 youths ages 12-16.

“It’s not just one-time contact. Those 20 kids are three times a week. A phone call every night,” said Bravo. 

While Salinas is dedicated to preventing youth from having the chaotic life he had involving gangs and jail, Bravo is motivated by the loss of a niece, who died of fentanyl poisoning. When her father notified Monterey County Courts he was in recovery from heroin use, reunification was allowed by the court.

“We understand the struggle of opening up,” said Salinas. “Sometimes it’s a simple way to talk like: ‘Hey I’ve been lying to my mom about something’ and ‘I need to tell her this.’” 

When Michelle Van De Mark was trying to understand what had happened to her son, she connected with Gilroy residents Lisa Marquez and Geralyn Vasquez who were able to answer some of her questions. Marquez and Vasquez knew exactly what Michelle was going through as they too had lost a child to a fentanyl overdose.

“As a mom I needed to warn kids, parents. I had the need to share my story,” said Marquez, who lost her 17-year-old son Fernando to a fentanyl overdose. “I was having one bad night, where I was just praying to God to not be woken up. He was my only son.”

Marquez and Vasquez visit schools and churches to educate anyone interested about drug abuse prevention. They believe it should be taught at schools and not just in a health unit.

Lisa Marquez talking about her son during the June 11, 2022 fentanyl awareness event. Photo by Juliana Luna.
Lisa Marquez talking about her son during the June 11, 2022 fentanyl awareness event. Photo by Juliana Luna.

“Schools should mention fentanyl in every form of the drug,” said Vasquez. “It is easy to get addicted. If it doesn’t kill you, chances are by the fifth time, you might get addicted.”

Though the mothers are focused on educating as many youth and parents as possible about opioids, the memory of their sons keep them pushing forward.

“Our kids matter, their footprints on this earth might not have been that long but they matter and they won’t be forgotten,” said Marquez. 

To honor them, Marquez created a map with the names of 132 Californians who died from an opioid overdose. 

She knows most parents are hesitant to speak about their kids because “a lot of blame gets put into the kids,” Marquez said. 

“Our kids are the victims and shouldn’t be looked at as criminals or bad people, ” she said. “These are normal kids, it could happen to anyone.”

 

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Juliana Luna

Juliana Luna is Hollister born and raised. She recently graduated from San Benito High School, 2021. Currently attending Gavilan College where she plans to earn her Business Associate’s Degree to transfer to a four-year university. In her free time, she enjoys exploring Pinnacles National Park, and horse riding.