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Fentanyl test strips in Fargo may someday lead to spike 'alerts' for community

Fargo Cass Public Health recently partnered with a harm reduction testing company that is developing a method for issuing fentanyl spike alerts.

A fentanyl testing kit with testing strip sits on a table
A fentanyl testing kit made by Signify Analytics is shown. Similar kits are available at the Harm Reduction Center in Fargo, through Fargo Cass Public Health. The strips can detect the presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times stronger than morphine and is a major cause of overdose death.
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FARGO — The local public health agency in Fargo has begun distributing a fentanyl test strip that could someday be used to alert the wider public to a spike in the presence of the synthetic opioid in the community.

The test strips are considered an important tool, along with the opioid reversal drug Narcan, in preventing overdose deaths, and are given by Fargo Cass Public Health to people who request them through the city’s Harm Reduction Center at 510 5th St. N.

A wider public alert prompted by a jump in positive test strips, issued by a harm reduction center or government agency, could be helpful in avoiding opioid overdoses that can quickly turn deadly.

Nearly 108,000 people died from drug overdoses last year in the U.S., and opioids were a factor in roughly 75% of those deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

A series of recent overdose deaths in Fargo prompted city police to issue a warning about counterfeit M30 pills made to look like the painkiller oxycodone but likely tainted with fentanyl.

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HEROIN FENTANY PILL2.jpg
These M30 pills, which have been sold as oxycodone by drug dealers, contain fentanyl that could be lethal to those who consume them, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration.
Contributed photo

Local authorities responded to four separate overdose calls the first weekend in August.

A 20-year-old woman and 28-year-old man died after ingesting drugs Saturday, Aug. 6; another 20-year-old woman died Monday, Aug. 8.

In another call, emergency responders were able to save a 26-year-old woman from an overdose by administering Narcan.

Fargo Cass Public Health has distributed some form of fentanyl test strip since 2019, but only began partnering with harm reduction testing company Signify Analytics a few months ago.

There’s no charge to the user for the test strips, which are funded by the state’s Behavioral Health Division under a state opioid response grant.

Robyn Litke Sall, prevention coordinator at FCPH, said the state recently requested they start tracking the number of strips distributed.

She said roughly 400 test strips went out to members of the community in June and July.

“They're reliable, they're common sense. It's a great way to provide people at risk of fentanyl exposure with more information that can help decrease the risk of overdose,” Litke Sall said.

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Across the river in Clay County, there are four publicly accessible fentanyl test strip pick-up sites, according to Rory Beil, health promotions director.

Such sites include Lotus Center, Lost and Found Recovery Center, Recovery Engaged Communities and Nystrom and Associates, he said.

Jordan Beyer, who runs the Harm Reduction Center in Fargo in collaboration with Litke Sall, said the test strips can impact a user’s approach.

If a test strip indicates the presence of fentanyl in the heroin or oxycodone the user is going to take, they may use less or in a slower fashion, or make sure they have someone near them that has Narcan to respond if needed, Beyer said.

Early studies confirm that, Litke Sall said. One study found 81% of those with access to fentanyl testing strips routinely tested their drugs before use, and those with positive test results were five times more likely to change their drug-use behavior.

The Signify Analytics test strips also contain a QR code, read through the camera of a smartphone, which directs the user to a simple instructional video for using the product.

There’s a separate QR code for the user to anonymously input a positive fentanyl test, should they get one.

Beyer said when he learns of positive fentanyl tests, he tries to alert people in any way he can, such as posting photos of drugs at the center suspected of being tainted as a warning.

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But that form of alert is mainly word of mouth and outreach.

A wider public warning, based on positive fentanyl test results, would likely reach even more people at risk.

“I think an alert system, something like that, could be beneficial, given what's been going on the past few years,” Beyer said.

Ryan Razzaghi and August Koster co-founded Signify Analytics after losing a close friend to a drug overdose.

Two men seated on couches, smiling
August Koster, left, and Ryan Razzaghi co-founded Signify Analytics, a harm reduction company that makes rapid at-home tests to prevent fentanyl overdoses.
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“We started hearing many stories of people who knew someone, and we realized just how close this hit many of our friends, our community, obviously and just how large this fentanyl epidemic was,” Razzaghi said.

Koster said because of the sensitivity of the test strips, only a small amount of drug residue is needed to indicate whether the substance you're consuming contains fentanyl or not.

A two-pack of strips sells for $10 and a test kit for $15, with lower, wholesale pricing also available.

Koster said the company is in phase one, trying to collect enough data from people who use the strips. Phase two will be putting that data to use that could be delivered in the form of a community alert.

Razzaghi said the mindset has changed, and that these products once considered an enabler are now a potential life saver.

“It seems like everyone is in total agreement that fentanyl overdoses are a huge and growing problem and that people should not die from drug use,” he said.

A fentanyl test kit, along with pills to be tested, sit on a table
A fentanyl test kit made by Signify Analytics is shown. Similar kits are available at the Harm Reduction Center in Fargo, through Fargo Cass Public Health. The strips can detect the presence of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 50-100 times stronger than morphine and is a major cause of overdose death.
Submitted

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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