How one professor is combating a silent epidemic in eastern Washington


Just as the COVID-19 epidemic exploded on the world stage in early 2020, a silent epidemic was also taking place in parallel to the spread of the deadly virus: drug overdoses, which increased nationally by 42% in May 2020 compared to year before, according to ODMAP. Law enforcement and public health experts believe the growth of overdoses was a result of state-mandated stay-at-home orders. Job losses, reduced income, and increased stress and anxiety have led to increased drug use as a coping mechanism for many. In 2020, fentanyl overtook methamphetamines as the drug most involved in overdoses in Washington state.

This is where Assistant Professor in Pharmacotherapy Nicole Rodin has made it her mission to educate communities in eastern Washington about the dangers of illicit fentanyl and the use of naloxone, the antidote to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose.

“I really believe in education. I think that a large part of a pharmacist’s job is educating on the medications being prescribed,” said Rodin.

Working with the United States Attorney’s Office, Rodin has helped to educate the public on how illicit fentanyl works in the body and circulated in the community. They hope that the trainings bring greater awareness of how these illicit substances enter local communities and target various populations.

“Who is most at risk? As [Dr. Rodin] and I have said: everybody. With illicit fentanyl and these fake pharmaceuticals, it is literally like playing Russian roulette,” said Stephanie Van Marter, Assistant US Attorney for the Eastern District of Washington, who works with Rodin to hold trainings with various community members and the public on the risks of illicit fentanyl.

Assistant Professor in Pharmacotherapy Nicole Rodin has been working with WSU Doctor of Pharmacy students to raise public awareness of the distribution channels of illicit fentanyl.

Rodin hopes these presentations inform consumers on the highly addictive nature of illicit fentanyl. Along with presenting these seminars, Rodin also mentors WSU pharmacy students in the American Pharmacists Association- Academy of Student Pharmacists Operation Substance Use Disorder (APhA-ASP SUD). She and her team of students have held trainings for health care providers, community members, as well as sororities and fraternities on the main WSU campus in Pullman, along with individuals who have a history of opioid abuse.

“Our student pharmacists have not only enjoyed being part of this effort, but they have made such an incredible impact,” said Rodin. “These community groups know so much more about what pharmacists and student pharmacists can do to make a difference.”

Their presentation not only educates the public on how opioids work on the cellular level, but also how easily one can overdose as a result of ingesting, inhaling or absorbing fentanyl-laced drugs. According to their presentation, just 2-3 milligrams of fentanyl is enough to cause a person serious harm or even death. For comparison, a Splenda sugar packet is 30 milligrams, and taking just 3-5 granules would be sufficient to cause a fatal overdose.

“Fentanyl is getting more common and is not always as easily detected as other drugs because it can be easily concealed in various formulations or products,” said Rodin.

The most alarming part of this silent epidemic is that people are unknowingly purchasing fake pharmaceuticals laced with illicit fentanyl. Fake OxyContin, Xanax, Percocet, and baby aspirin are just some of the counterfeit pills being trafficked through eastern Washington.

“These fake pharmaceuticals look identical to real pharmaceuticals,” said Rodin. “In working with community partners in different fields, you see such a wide variety of perspectives and you get to see how close to home this epidemic really is,” said Rodin.

Rodin recommends that those who wish to learn more about the impacts of illicit fentanyl can tune in to her free, on-demand training, which is open to the public.

“The end goal with the trainings and education is to increase awareness on what we are seeing in our community, decrease stigma around substance use disorder, and connect people with resources,” said Rodin.