PRESCOTT VALLEY, Ariz. - More and more young people in Arizona, including teenagers, are dying suddenly because of the synthetic drug fentanyl.
The Arizona Department of Health Services (AZDHS) tracks opioid and fentanyl overdose deaths and the numbers skyrocketed during 2020.
For nearly six consecutive months in 2020, healthcare workers recorded more than 200 fentanyl-related deaths per month.
Yavapai County community devastated by fentanyl
Hannah Cupp was 17. She had a loving family, a job and plans to go to cosmetology school. Her life suddenly ended on Saturday, March 22, 2020.
On that fateful Saturday, Cupp's family thought she was just sleeping in. Hannah’s younger sister went into her bedroom to wake her up, but something was wrong.
Sommer Cupp, Hannah Cupp's mother
"She put our dog at the end of Hannah’s bed, and our dog immediately went up to Hannah and immediately walked away," said Hannah's mother, Sommer Cupp. "I went in there and touched her shoulder, and she was really cold and hard. I touched her shoulder, I noticed there was stuff coming out of her nose, and blood. When I saw the blood, I went running to Mike."
The coroner ruled that Hannah had died overnight after ingesting fentanyl.
"She passed from what was equal to three grains of salt of synthetic fentanyl that she touched on a Percocet pill," said Sommer.
As Hannah’s parents traced her steps before her sudden death, they suspect her insecurities, along with a new boyfriend, may have been factors.
Mike Cupp, Hannah Cupp's father
"I think she was vulnerable," said Hannah's father Mike Cupp. "I think she was weak, and this young man had preyed on that."
Community organizers see patterns in deaths
Hannah was one of five kids in the community who died in 2020 because of fentanyl. In Yavapai County, the number of fentanyl deaths stood at 40 in 2020, compared to 9 in 2019. A deadly spike unlike any other drug before.
"Not to this magnitude, we haven’t, and the other really unusual circumstance we’re seeing is that teenagers are dying. In our county, we’ve had nine teenagers who have died. Five of them in 2020," said Executive Director of Matforce, Merilee Fowler. "The thing that’s unusual about these fentanyl deaths is oftentimes, they’re good kids, but they might be dabbling in drugs a little bit, but they have no idea they’re taking this fentanyl pill and that one pill can kill them. So that’s a very unusual situation for us."
Matforce is a community organization aimed at preventing substance abuse. Organizers have looked into each of the recent teenage fentanyl deaths and have found a pattern.
"We know that kids are feeling stressed, they’re feeling lonely, and I definitely think that it’s had an effect on the opioid epidemic," said Fowler.
Like many adults, Fowler says kids turn to pills to help them feel better.
"I tell all parents they need to monitor their kid's social media. They need to be aware of what’s going on. We’ve identified cases where they’re getting the pills through Instagram or other social media sites."
"Be aware of your kids’ online activities. Look at their Snapchat. Check their rooms. It could be a fatal mistake not doing that," said Sgt. Jared Winfrey with the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office's Partners Against Narcotics Trafficking (PANT) Task Force.
Fentanyl deaths in Yavapai County surge
A tiny amount of fentanyl could be potentially fatal. When DEA officials handle fentanyl seizures, they wear hazmat suits and work under a hood with special ventilation, making sure to touch or breathe in the drug.
"Anywhere from 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin, but it’s packaged in a way, in these tablets, to where it seems fairly innocent," said Sgt. Winfrey.
The PANT Task Force has seen an influx of fentanyl-laced pills in their community. Sgt. Winfrey says fentanyl is on track to become the number one killer when it comes to drug overdoses in Yavapai County.
"It’s completely different, in that one pill can kill. It has, as we’ve seen that with Hannah," said Sgt. Winfrey.
Fentanyl-laced pills come in many different colors and shapes.
"People will commonly refer to the blue, M30 pills as 'blues,'" said Sgt. Winfrey. "In text messages, they’ll send a blue M&M, or they’ll call it 'Perks' or 'M30s.'"
As kids in the small community continue to see their peers die from fentanyl, Sgt. Winfrey says some have become proactive in turning in local dealers.
"The kids in the area are furious, and they’ve demanded change," said Sgt. Winfrey. "They’re putting it on social media, and they’re calling Silent Witness and giving us the information we need to make an arrest."
As for Hannah’s family, they’ve become proactive as well, hoping their loss will bring awareness to other parents, and prevent another child from dying from fentanyl use.
"We felt we did everything we could correctly as a loving family," her father said. "She’s supposed to be here with us in this house, but she’s not."
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