By Steve Gorman
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - At least 42 drug overdoses in the past two weeks have been reported in northern California, 10 of them fatal, in what authorities on Monday called the biggest cluster of poisonings linked to the powerful synthetic narcotic fentanyl ever to hit the U.S. West Coast.
The rash of overdoses, which Sacramento County public health authorities began to report on March 24, have been centered in and around the California capital. Nine of the fatal cases were reported there, with the tenth occurring in neighboring Yolo County.
The U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) last year issued a nationwide alert about the dangers of fentanyl, an opioid prescribed as a pain reliever for terminally ill patients but also produced in underground labs for sale as a street drug.
Fentanyl ranks as the most potent narcotic known - 25 to 50 times stronger than heroin and 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Even a tiny amount can be lethal, according to the DEA.
While a handful of fatal fentanyl-related overdoses were reported in the San Francisco Bay area last year, the scope of the current wave of poisonings and deaths in and around Sacramento is unprecedented for the West Coast, DEA spokeswoman Cassie Rettig said.
In Sacramento, the fentanyl in question has surfaced in counterfeit tablets made to look like Norco, a brand name for a prescription drug that combines hydrocodone and acetaminophen, the Sacramento County Department of Health and Human Services reported.
Tests of some pills recovered by authorities show they contain fentanyl only, though toxicology results on the victims are still pending, Rettig said.
DEA and public health officials said the victims likely were unaware that the pills they were taking contained a narcotic as strong as fentanyl.
The DEA last week took the lead in seeking the origins of the fentanyl-laced tablets, Rettig said, adding, "We have dedicated additional resources to the investigation, and we’re working around the clock on it."
Much of the illegal fentanyl distributed in the United States is believed to be produced in China and shipped to Mexico, before being smuggled north of the U.S. border, Rettig said.
Fentanyl abuse and related fatalities have previously been most prevalent in the Northeast and Midwest, accounting for 80 overdose deaths over six months of 2014 in New Jersey and 200 deaths during 15 months spanning 2013-2014 in Pennsylvania, according to the DEA.
(Reporting by Steve Gorman; Editing by Sara Catania, Bernard Orr and Leslie Adler)