GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — The presence of fentanyl in so many drugs is changing the conversation about combating abuse.

“Our messaging shifts into more of a harm reduction strategy, how to keep yourself safe and alive so you might be able to access treatment if that’s something you’re looking for,” Rachel Jantz, a public health epidemiologist with the Kent County Health Department, said.

Tuesday marked National Fentanyl Awareness Day, shining a light on the powerful synthetic opioid that is contributing to an alarming number of deadly overdoses. Fentanyl is 50 times more powerful than heroin, 100 times more potent than morphine and cheap to produce.

“In 2015, fentanyl was involved in less than 20% of opioid-involved overdoses” in Kent County, Jantz said, “and in this last year in 2022, it was involved in 91%.”

In 2022, 81 Kent County residents died of a fentanyl overdose, often in conjunction with other drugs.

“Whereas we used to see fentanyl only in opioid-type products … we’re seeing it in cocaine and in methamphetamine as well, as well as pressed pills that look like Xanax or Percocet,” Jantz said.

Fentanyl is also a major focus for law enforcement.

“In terms of loss of life to our citizens, this is the No. 1 law enforcement problem that we face,” Lt. Richard Pazder, who commands MSP’s Southwest Enforcement Team, a multijurisdictional drug task force.

Pazder says there are also new threats, including the emergence of xylazine mixed with fentanyl.

“(Xylazine is) an animal tranquilizer, it’s not an opioid, so it does not respond to (overdose reversal drug) naloxone and it can be fatal even on its own, unfortunately,” Pazder said.

MSP is targeting those responsible for dealing fentanyl-laced drugs but the community is also encouraged to be cautious.

“Never ever buy a pill off the street. One pill can kill,” Pazder said.

Jantz says having naloxone, which is often known by Narcan, and fentanyl testing strips on hand can save lives.

“Drug use, substance use disorder, the opioid epidemic impacts everyone in our community and we all can play a part in mitigating that,” she said.

The Kent County Health Department has a free Narcan vending machine available at 700 Fuller Ave. NE, Grand Rapids, MI 49503. Similar vending machines can be found at The Red Project on Hall Street and Cherry Health Heart of the City Health Center.