Map of Nebraska where current pharmacies distribute naloxone along with pharmacies that are preparing to distribute naloxone.
This map shows current and future pharmacies distributing naloxone in Nebraska from the Department of Health and Human Services' Naloxone Distribution Program. (Graphic by Nebraska DHHS)

Fatal drug overdoses spiked 40% in Nebraska over the past year, causing concern for communities and law enforcement across the state.

Fifty of the 141 fatal drug overdoses in 2021 occurred in August, from small towns to cities, according to the Lincoln Police Department. The recent spike in fatal overdoses links to lethal doses of fentanyl mixed with other drugs such as cocaine and meth. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid 100 times more potent than morphine and takes 2 milligrams of fentanyl to be fatal, which could be a few granules. People are vulnerable to unknown substances in various pills and drugs, which could potentially be fatal.

Eric Kauffman, a lieutenant for the Nebraska State Patrol Investigative Services Division in Omaha, said users unknowingly take a drug with mixed contents including fentanyl. Drugs, like fentanyl, are coming from the west, and money is sent back across I-80. People with mental health conditions are susceptible to substance abuse and relapse, causing concern for the possibility of a lethal dose of fentanyl in drugs they are taking.

“Omaha troops are seeing fentanyl show up in a lot of drugs such as meth, cocaine and pills,” Kauffman said. “Pill presses are being used to mix fentanyl with other drugs which leads to an overdose.”

Kauffman said officers take a lot of precautions during traffic stops and never assume anything to be safe. Fentanyl can be mixed with any drug in various dosage amounts. The officers’ day-to-day focus is getting drugs off the street and into a safe location.

“Fentanyl can be aerosolized which can be harmful or deadly to officers,” Kauffman said. “They are always wearing gloves and masks.”

An Omaha trooper found 11 pounds of fentanyl at a traffic stop in Dawson County on Aug. 24. This amounts to approximately 2.5 million lethal doses of fentanyl.

“We have seized over 200 pounds of fentanyl in the state over the past five years,” Kauffman said. “I-80 is a drug pipeline, and no community is immune from this.”

Brad Zumwalt, an opioid response project director for the Nebraska Department of Health and Human Services, oversees a federally funded program for substance abuse and mental health administration.

“A lot of drugs are coming from the west coast on I-80 to Nebraska,” Zumwalt said. “Law enforcement works to make the stops and break the pipeline, stopping the drugs from coming in and the money going out.”

Naloxone is a prescription drug that rapidly reverses opioid overdoses. It restores the breathing of someone having an overdose and works only when opioids are in the system. The Nebraska DHHS distributes naloxone for free across the state through 25 pharmacies. Distributions of naloxone are available for residents in rural and urban Nebraska. First responders and pharmacies distributed more than 2,500 naloxone kits in 2021.

Zumwalt said the Drug Enforcement Agency has two formal take-back days in April and October where pharmacies across the state dispose of medication and educate the public on potential abuse of drugs. Drug take-back days resulted in 21,600 pounds of prescription and non-prescription drugs collected since October 2020.

Taylor Moore, prevention coordinator for the DHHS, said getting the word out to media platforms makes the community aware of resources available to those struggling with addiction.

“Seven hundred thousand people have been reached through public service announcements and sponsored opioid media campaigns since October 2020,” Moore said.

Kauffman said 1 million died nationwide to fatal overdoses in the last 20 years.

“Fatal overdoses know no city limits,” Kauffman said. “It affects rural areas and urban areas. There are options across the state of Nebraska for people who need help.”