This is an example of a counterfeit pill seized locally.

Fentanyl-laced pills that look like prescription pills are contributing to skyrocketing overdoses, according to police.

Joshua T. Price, a state police special agent and Northwest Virginia Regional Drug and Gang Task Force coordinator, said in an email on Wednesday that at least two deaths and 15 non-fatal overdoses in the region this year are due to the pills. Victims told authorities they believed they were taking prescription pills that they illegally obtained, not fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is about 50 times more potent than heroin.

"These pills are deceiving [because] they are stamped, colored and shaped like a common prescription drug," Price said.

Price said task force members learned about the pills from interviews with overdose victims and recently seized pills matching the descriptions. The seizures come at a time when the region's overdose rate has reached record levels. Drug recovery advocates say the coronavirus pandemic has increased depression, isolation and unemployment among drug users, leading to more overdoses.

Through Sunday, 46 fatal and 167 non-fatal overdoses had been reported in the Lord Fairfax Health District, according to Price. The district encompasses Winchester as well as Clarke, Frederick, Page, Shenandoah and Warren counties. At this time last year, there were 26 fatal and 115 non-fatal overdoses. The number of fatal overdoses so far this year in the region surpasses a previous record of 40 in 2017.

Because of its potency, fentanyl has been responsible for a dramatic rise in overdose deaths nationally and locally, but it is traditionally mixed in heroin, not in pills.

In August, a Drug Enforcement Administration news release reported a rise in fentanyl-related deaths in and around San Diego, California, with some involving counterfeit pills. The DEA also said some 45,000 counterfeit pills had been seized in Minnesota in the first seven months of the year. That's four times as many as were seized in all of last year. The news release said the pills were coming from drug trafficking groups in Arizona, California and Mexico.

— Contact Evan Goodenow at egoodenow@winchesterstar.com

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