‘Pandemic within the pandemic’: How America’s deadly fentanyl crisis has been overshadowed by Covid

In a lonely motel room an hour south of Nashville, Anna Bradburn tells me she desperately wants to live. And yet every few hours she takes a huge risk, she does something so dangerous it has killed 100,000 Americans over the last year. She knows she is dicing with death several times a day. Anna takes fentanyl, the synthetic drug which is 100 times more powerful than morphine and far more lethal than heroin.

Fentanyl has flooded the streets of Middle America, creating a crisis of alarming dimensions.

The only reason it hasn’t seized the headlines is because it’s been overshadowed by the other great public health emergency – Covid. 

We spoke to four people in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, a city ravaged by the Fentanyl epidemic, about the scale and depth of the problem.

The addict

Anna Bradburn is the daughter of a doctor and trained as a paramedic, so she knows the risk.

Trauma, she says, was her gateway to Fentanyl. Her father died of cancer and months later she was diagnosed with cancer too. She went from painkillers, to street heroin, and then fentanyl.

During Covid, there has been no easy access to rehab clinics. Social support systems – which are so vital to addicts – have withered.

Anna had nowhere to turn and she is now in a dark, lonely and dangerous place, risking her life to satisfy her overwhelming addictive cravings.

She has already “died” twice, both times being saved only with the emergency use of Narcan, a medication that reverses the effects of an overdose. 

The expert

Michael Deleon is a former drug dealer and gang member, but he has now become a remarkably successful addiction expert, touring schools to educate a new generation about the risks of fentanyl.

He also helps addicts who are trying to recover. He warns by 2023 a quarter of a million Americans will die from fentanyl overdoses.

The grieving mother

Tonya Garton is a regular American mum, living near Nashville.

But like so many parents, she is now grieving for a child lost to the menace of ever-more potent synthetic drugs. Her son Quintenn died in March after a fentanyl overdose.

A star athlete and a popular young man, Quintenn had fought a long battle against addiction, with Covid restrictions making it far more difficult to access the support he needed.

Tonya sees fentanyl and Covid as co-conspirators in her son’s death. She begs officials not to focus on Covid at the expense of the rapidly escalating addiction crisis.

The police chief

Captain Don Fanning and his fellow officers are on the frontlines of the epidemic.

In many parts of Tennessee more people are dying from fentanyl overdoses than from Covid. And they see no sign of the fentanyl crisis ending.

The drug is pouring in across the border from Mexico; large quantities are being shipped from China; it is being sold via chat rooms and online.

It is consuming every demographic: Rich and poor; white, black, and hispanic; urban, rural and suburban – no part of America is untouched.

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