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3-month-old infant and two San Jose teenagers dead from fentanyl poisoning in one month

3-month-old infant and two San Jose teenagers dead from fentanyl poisoning in one month

In less than 30 days, two teenage girls and a three-month old infant were declared dead from acute fentanyl poisoning in San Jose this spring, among the youngest deaths attributed to the powerful opioid in Santa Clara County as officials in several Bay Area counties deal with alarming death counts.

The first to pass away was a 15-year-old girl who overdosed on fentanyl in the breezeway of her sprawling apartment complex in East San Jose on April 16.

Then almost a month later, a 3-month old baby girl and a 16-year-old local cheerleader were both pronounced dead — just seven hours apart at the same San Jose hospital. The baby died from combined fentanyl and methamphetamine poisoning.

“It’s outrageous and inexcusable,” said Santa Clara County Supervisor Cindy Chavez, who formed a fentanyl working group back in 2022 to try and marshal resources to combat the fentanyl crisis locally. “I’m even having a hard time understanding how a three-month old would ingest it (fentanyl), I mean, they don’t even crawl.”

Few details have been publicly released about the fatal overdoses, which show up among death records tallied by the Santa Clara County’s Office of the Medical Examiner-Coroner. It can sometimes take months for officials to confirm if drugs caused a death. No charges have been filed in any of the cases, though a meeting is expected between the San Jose Police Department and the Santa Clara County District Attorney’s office  this week to discuss the infant case, according to Assistant District Attorney Stacey Capps who helps oversee a number of departments, including the Major Crimes and Drug Trafficking division.

Nobody answered the door Friday at the home where the infant died, but a neighbor told the Bay Area News Group that police showed up back in May around when the baby passed away at Good Samaritan Hospital.

Statewide, 6,095 people died from fentanyl in 2022 – the highest number ever recorded in California – according to data released earlier this month by the California Department of Public Health. But deaths of 15-to-24 year-olds actually dropped from a high of 785 in 2021 to 588 last year.

The newly released data, however, revealed an uptick in fentanyl deaths in Alameda County, where 196 died in 2022 compared to 159 in 2021. In more hopeful news, San Francisco’s staggeringly high death count dropped last year to 312 — 20% lower than in 2021, when 391 people died from the lethal opioid. Meanwhilefentanyl-related deaths stayed relatively flat in Santa Clara (134), San Mateo (72), and Contra Costa (144) counties in 2022 compared to 2021.

Prosecutors and medical experts say that fewer teen fentanyl users are dying because the fentanyl market has shifted more heavily towards older, hardened drug users, many of whom are explicitly seeking out the synthetic opioid, which is 50 times more powerful than heroin. Many of the young people who die from fentanyl poisoning purchase illicit pills, such as painkillers, which they do not know contain fentanyl.

While teenage deaths are still relatively common, the death of a three-month-old infant from fentanyl is extremely rare. One recent study published by JAMA Pediatrics found that just 105 infants below the age of 1 died nationally from fentanyl poisoning from 1999 to 2021.

When infants do die from fentanyl poisoning, the focus is immediately on the parents.

Criminal law experts say that prosecutors often file charges against parents when their children die from drug overdoses.

“Parents (and caretakers) have a duty to protect their children from exposure to clear dangers and to rescue them if at all possible if they are exposed… so they could well be charged with a homicide offense – although some kind of child abuse charge would be more likely,” said Jonathan Simon, professor of criminal law at UC Berkeley.

In recent years, prosecutors across the Bay Area have shown a clear willingness to file murder charges against parents whose children die of fentanyl poisoning on their watch.

In 2020, Genesis Barrera-Galdamez, 24, was charged with murdering her 2-year-old by leaving fentanyl around their Brentwood home. She accepted a plea deal to manslaughter and is set to be eligible for parole in 2028.

Last year, 22-year-old Justin Pittman, of Livermore, was charged with murder in the death of his 1-year-old daughter who died from apparent fentanyl poisoning.  The baby’s mother mother discovered the toddler had turned purple upon returning home while Pittman was napping in his bed.

More recently, paramedics were able to save the life of an infant girl on May 10, after her mother allegedly left fentanyl in an easily-accessible area in their Oakland home. Alameda County prosecutors filed a felony child abuse charge against the mother.

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Medical experts say that one of the reasons infants can be exposed to drugs like fentanyl is that new parents have very few resources to get treatment for addiction. Very few residential rehabilitation facilities in the Bay Area accept new parents with babies in tow.

“The biggest (resource) gap is actually in the postpartum period… Like that three-month-old — if the parents had been in a residential program, there would have been so much more oversight and safety that might have prevented the fentanyl from even being present,” said Dr. Diana Coffa, professor of Family Community Medicine at UC San Francisco. Coffa helped draft federal opioid treatment guidelines for pregnant women and their children after birth.

Santa Clara County officials are currently focused on working with non-profit organizations and other partners to distribute the opioid-reversing medication Narcan across the county.

Supervisor Chavez said she plans on filing a referral to the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority on Sept. 7, requesting that they make Narcan available on buses and in transit stations throughout the county.

“All of us have to continue to expand the information we get out to the community, both the parents and the young people so they understand the risks,” Chavez said. “One thing that is really just distressing about the situation we’re in is — it’s robbing children of their whole lives.”

Staff Writer Nate Gartrell contributed reporting for this article.