Health and community leaders discuss increasing fentanyl at awareness summit

Health experts and community leaders are asking Hawaii island residents about the growing dangers of the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

On Tuesday, February 22, West Hawaiʻi Community Health Center, in partnership with Hawaiʻi County, hosted its first Fentanyl Awareness Summit in Kailua-Kona which brought together a panel of experts from various sectors, local and state , to address the opioid crisis .

In 2021, 14 kilograms of fentanyl were seized in Hawaii County. Experts say it only takes 2 milligrams of the synthetic drug to be fatal. That same year, the Department of Health reported that emergency medical services handled 78 possible fentanyl-related overdoses. In late 2021, Hawaiian Police Lt. Edwin Buyten confirmed to Big Island Now that there was an increase in fentanyl-related investigations.

“The fentanyl tsunami is coming and we need to prepare for it,” Alysa Lavoie, WHCHC’s behavioral health program manager, said at Tuesday’s summit.

About 155 people streamed the summit online and about two dozen questions were submitted to panelists during the event. Mayor Mitch Roth kicked off the inaugural event with remarks. He said that the subject discussed was important.


“We have to act,” Roth said. “If we don’t do something, we’re going to keep losing people to overdoses.”


Richard Taaffe, CEO of WHCHC, said opioids and addictions are huge issues the health clinic sees every day.

“It’s about community and making a difference in the lives of community members,” Taaffe said. “Today we have the opportunity to get ahead. Fentanyl kills, ultimately. It hurts people in schools without knowing it. We must work together and we will make a difference.

Panelist Dr Kevin Kunz, of the WHCHC, said fentanyl was first synthesized in 1961 and was prescribed by doctors for the treatment of pain in hospitals and the management of pain at the end of life. life. The drug used by doctors comes in the form of a patch. Kunz said the fentanyl found on the streets is made illegally.


“Street fentanyl comes in a powder form that’s pressed into a pill that looks like Xanax, hydrocodone, and oxycodone,” he said. “Someone could take this medicine and never wake up.”

The opioid is also mixed with other drugs, including heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine. Panelists said it was entirely possible that fentanyl was also mixed with marijuana.

Panelist Dr. Dan Galanis of the Department of Health said there has been an increase in fatal overdoses of illicit opioids across the state over the past three years. Additionally, EMS reports an increase in the use of naloxone, also known as Narcan. The drug is used to revive those who overdose.

Panel member Capt. Chris Honda of the Hawaii Fire Department said he administers about 200 doses per year; however, he thinks more doses are being given.

Lokahi treatment center senior counselor Verna Chartrand, also known as Aunt Verna, said clients reported seeing fentanyl on the street and others told her they were resuscitated after an overdose of naloxone.

“It’s crazy out there,” Chartrand said. “Clients take methamphetamine without knowing that fentanyl is there. Someone can quit meth, but with fentanyl they have a hard time. They need more help than I can give them.

The Men of Paʻa, an ʻaina-based recovery program, also had a seat on the panel. Founder Iopa Maunakea and participant Carlos Bellotto spoke about the importance of recovery, restoration and reconciliation.

Bellotto also shared his recovery journey and experience with fentanyl. While still battling his addiction, Bellotto said, he overdosed at least six times. Click here to read his full story.

Community leaders hope to continue this conversation about fighting fentanyl. WHCHC will host a Zoom meeting on March 4 to discuss a working group.

“We’re just going to work together to find solutions,” Lavoie said. “My hope is that people understand what this is about and that the community joins us and finds solutions.”