Miss Shirley doesn’t usually mind all the ruckus on her Southwest Washington street corner, which was recently prettied up with a sprawling, candy-colored mural of a lotus blossom and a child.
She’s right. It wasn’t old-school heroin that sent 10 ambulances — and three coroner’s vans — screaming down the streets of a tired neighborhood just two blocks from one of D.C.’s glitziest new developments.
There were 10 overdoses, with at least three fatalities.
“With neighbors in Southwest right now,” D.C. Councilmember Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) tweeted Friday afternoon, when it became clear this was not about heroin but the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. “There’s a lethal batch out.”
Allen was in the middle of a Zoom meeting on education when the texts started coming in about all the ambulances. He got to Half Street as soon as he could, only to find one of his good friends in despair — her 72-year-old mother was one of those dead.
“Then we went around the corner,” he said, only to find the distraught daughter of another victim, age 69.
All day Friday, every time someone in Southwest heard another ambulance, they wondered who was next. A fourth victim remained on life support Monday, but it wasn’t looking good, Allen said.
“This was a mass casualty event,” he said. “The intensity was jarring.”
It was also totally predictable, said Domenica Personti, interim chief executive of the D.C.-area Recovery Centers of America.
“These clusters happen when someone new is selling in the area,” Personti said.
When there is a new dealer with a new product in the area, users may not be familiar with its intensity.
Sure enough, Miss Shirley told me she saw someone new among the street-corner guys she usually sees by the lotus blossom. “He was there Thursday and he had this duffle bag. He was there for a while, then he was gone. And we didn’t see him again.”
The next day the emergency calls started coming in, and ambulances were being dispatched from all over the city to keep up with the demand.
“It usually happens after arrests,” Personti said. “When there are big arrests, everyone claps, they get excited … and everyone who works in public health says: ‘Oh, now there are going to be deaths.’ And it’s gut-wrenching.”
Allen joined other public officials at a news conference Monday afternoon to talk about the deaths and to implore folks to get some free naloxone to counteract opioid overdoses.
Since they began carrying the medication in 2019, D.C. police officers have given 1,800 doses of it.
“That’s 1,800 lives saved,” D.C. Police Chief Robert J. Contee III said. And he wanted folks to know they’re immune from trouble when they give the dose.
“That is not the time to worry about whether or not someone is getting in trouble,” Contee said. “It is about saving someone’s life.”
Personti said whenever there were arrests in Delaware or Baltimore, where she did most of her street-level outreach work, she’d get a team to the street corners with coffee and doughnuts, naloxone and test strips — talk up the users and tell them to test the stuff they get from the new dealer before they use it.
“I know this isn’t the abstinence-based approaches, like detox on the couch, then go to [Narcotics Anonymous],” she said. “But we weren’t dealing with fentanyl back then. There is nothing like this. Nothing. It’s terrifying.”
Opioid deaths, long a story within White and largely rural America, are on the rise in our cities and are skyrocketing among the African American population.
Fatal opioid overdoses were up 46 percent in the District in 2020 from the previous year, with 411 dead, according to city data. Before the coronavirus pandemic, D.C. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) promised to cut the number of opioid deaths in half. The numbers for all of last year aren’t in yet, but as of August, they were clocking at a higher rate than 2020.
Personti said the overdoses are also increasingly becoming fatal because the age of users is rapidly changing, too.
Two years ago, most users in the D.C. area were 18 to 26 years old. Last year, that shifted to primarily 46- to 55-year-olds, Personti said. These folks already have diabetes or hypertension or heart conditions that make an overdose harder to survive, she said.
The shopkeeper at that corner in Southwest said the three people who died were customers of his, and they were all older. The rest of the neighbors were surprised, too.
“When this happened, you found out who’s on it,” said a 47-year-old Navy veteran who raised a family on that street. “We couldn’t believe some of the people who OD’d that day. People you didn’t think were doing the stuff.”
Opioid overdose deaths now outpace homicides in D.C. It’s frustrating to Allen that this doesn’t bother folks more.
“Your most standard profile of a victim is usually an older Black man,” he said. “If it’s a whole bunch of White suburban teens in West Virginia, it will get national attention.”
The D.C. Council passed a law in 2019 to get police to carry naloxone.
“They use it all the time now,” he said.
On Friday, the local community leaders all gathered at that corner, every one of them having received naloxone training. “We said to walk through every alley, look in every nook and cranny,” Allen said. “There may be more out there.”
D.C. residents can text the phrase LiveLongDC to 888-111 to get naloxone free and confidentially, by delivery or pickup.