Three moms focus awareness of overdose threats in Sioux Falls
The number of deaths in the city dropped last year but police and advocacy groups say education and prevention are more important than ever.
SIOUX FALLS — Alicia Steinfurth’s son Josh was working hard and saving money to buy a house.
He died after taking a fentanyl pill disguised as Percocet.
Diane Eide’s son Trace had been six months sober from a methamphetamine addiction.
He died after relapsing.
The two mothers joined Sioux Falls area law enforcement on Monday, May 8, to focus attention on drug overdoses, and a new threat from xylazine, an animal tranquilizer that is showing up in combination with other drugs, particularly fentanyl.
Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that illicit manufactures produce to look like common prescription painkillers. The fake versions, however, are many factors more powerful than the legal versions and can slow body functions to the point of death.
May 9 is national Fentanyl Awareness Day and during Monday’s media event, law enforcement and advocates stressed that education is the key to preventing more deaths.
“We are still seeing way too many deaths and we have our work cut out for us,” said Angela Kennecke, the president and CEO of Emily's Hope, a Sioux Falls nonprofit committed to prevention. “We cannot arrest our way out of this epidemic.”
The number of overdose deaths in Sioux Falls decreased last year, in contrast to rising numbers nationwide. There were 21 deaths in the city in 2022 down from 29 the previous year.
While that’s a good trend, the need for awareness and education remains high, said Sioux Falls Police Chief Jon Thum.
“You don’t get to make a second mistake with fentanyl,” Thum said. “We’re going to stand up every chance we get and talk about the dangers that are here. We’ll celebrate a decrease but we know there’s plenty of work to do in plenty of areas that we can continue.”
Steinfurth said Josh was a good kid who had grown into a good adult.
He loved his job at a local beverage distributor and had a lot of friends. He had moved home in order to save money with plans to buy a house.
“One night he was with friends and they were drinking and they decided, let’s do something more,” she said. “So they bought two pills that they thought were Percocet. They were 100% fentanyl and Josh died.”
That was Aug. 8, 2020, just three weeks after his 23rd birthday.
“This last December my daughter got married and that was one of the hardest things because we had to do the wedding ceremony and everything without Josh,” she said. “It really does just take one pill.”
Eide’s son Trace had struggled with addiction for 10 years. He’d been in and out of treatment and the juvenile justice system.
But his life was improving just before he died on April 12, 2021.
“Three weeks before he died he managed to get his own apartment. He had a job. He got a car. Things were really looking up until he relapsed,” Eide said.
Her message on Monday was one of awareness.
“Substance abuse disorder is a chronic disease and needs to be treated that way,” she said.
Emily’s Hope is working with The Link, the city’s triage center for people in crisis from mental health or substance abuse issues, to provide fentanyl testing strips, which were legalized in South Dakota this year.
The strips allow drug users to know whether what they’re taking is what they think, or if it’s a counterfeit laced with, or made entirely from, fentanyl.
“We know that we want to stop all illicit drug use,” said Kennecke, whose 21-year-old daughter Emily died after an overdose. “But we know that people will still use drugs, and we want them to test it for fentanyl because we know most people don’t know that there is fentanyl in the drug that they take. We want them to utilize these strips to test their drugs until we can get them help.”
Minnehaha County Sheriff Mike Milstead warned of another emerging threat. Xylazine is an animal tranquilizer that people are using to extend the high from other drugs.
It’s not an illegal substance but its effects on the human body when injected or ingested are gruesome. Patches of a user’s skin will develop wounds that produce dead tissue. If not treated, the effects can spread and lead to amputation.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration recently warned of a sharp increase in the amount of fentanyl found that was laced with xylazine. Often called “tranq,” the drug is a powerful sedative that causes blackouts.
South Dakota is one of two states that have yet to report cases of xylazine-laced narcotics. But its use is rampant in other parts of the country.
“Xylazine is making the deadliest drug threat our country has ever faced, fentanyl, even deadlier,” DEA Administrator Anne Milgram, said in a statement. “DEA has seized xylazine and fentanyl mixtures in 48 of 50 States. The DEA Laboratory System is reporting that in 2022 approximately 23% of fentanyl powder and 7% of fentanyl pills seized by the DEA contained xylazine.”
Milstead, who is the current chair of the National Sheriffs’ Association Drug Enforcement Committee, said that xylazine is complicating efforts to help people who are addicted to various drugs.
“It’s next door and coming to a drug dealer near you,” he said.