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Atascadero families speak out against fentanyl-related deaths with "An Empty Chair" campaign

Posted at 9:43 PM, Sep 20, 2020

A different kind of public health crisis is now claiming the lives of more young adults.

Health experts say even though the opioid crisis in San Luis Obispo County has been on the decline for the past few years, fentanyl is still proving to be a deadly drug on the Central Coast.

Atascadero mothers Cindy Sarantos and Cammie Velci lost their sons - Dylan and Emilio - to fentanyl poisoning this year.

“I found my son lifeless in his room from taking what he thought was ecstasy and it turned out to be fentanyl," Sarantos said.

The drug can be 30 to 50 times more potent than heroin, according to Frank Warren, the Division Manager for Prevention and Outreach for the County of San Luis Obispo Behavioral Health Department.

According to local health experts, there has been a correlation between the COVID-19 pandemic and an increased use of opioid drugs.

“We've become somewhat desensitized because of how often we are prescribed painkillers now," Warren said.

The pain-killing drug is dangerously lethal, more easily available and often times discretely mixed in with other drugs to make them more potent.

“He was having intimate wisdom teeth pain, and purchased of Percocet to help him with that," Velci said.

Health experts said it only takes a small amount to kill, even for first time users.

“People between the ages of 19 and 30, they are the most active of users who are seeking it for seeking that high necessarily are seeking it to use not necessarily medicinally," Warren said.

Those who have lost loved one to the drug say the overdose is not the problem.

"It's drug induced homicide, these are these are not overdoses," Sarantos said.

The opioid crisis impacts people of all ages, according to SLO County health experts.

A group called "An Empty Chair Campaign" took to the streets of downtown San Luis Obispo Sunday to speak out against the opioid crisis, some claiming drug dealers are peddling poison for profit.

“It does become a way for drug dealers to increase a high with less cost on their end,” Warren said.

Santa Clarita resident Jaime Puerta also lost his son to fentanyl in April.

“It's unbelievable. The amount of children are passing away due to this," he said. "This is the real pandemic."

Puerta is pushing for change in legislation like AB 109 and Proposition 47 to bring the light to the harsh realities of the opioid crisis.

San Luis Obispo County does have an Opioid Safety Coalition, which works to continue the conversation of the opioid crisis on the Central Coast.

Warren added that some medical experts are promoting the use of Naloxone, an overdose reversal drug, that has become increasingly available over the counter.

It is often carried by law enforcement as well as medical and treatment professionals.

For more information on the efforts behind the Empty Chair Campaign, click here.