(Bloomberg) -- The warnings are coming from across California. 

In Marin County, just across the Golden Gate bridge from San Francisco, there were five suspected fentanyl-related deaths in just two weeks in February. In South Lake Tahoe, four people died after sharing drinks and what they thought was cocaine during Super Bowl Sunday. Authorities continue to investigate the deaths of three people found this year in a downtown Los Angeles loft.

California has spent more than $1 billion fighting the rise of fentanyl in recent years, but deaths keep increasing. The most recent state data shows there were 7,385 opioid-related overdose deaths in 2022, more than three times higher than in 2019. Officials attribute the surge to fentanyl, the synthetic opioid that’s up to 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine.

Now, to stem the soaring number of overdoses, the state government just began distributing fentanyl test strips that can detect the opioid in methamphetamine, cocaine and other drugs and pills. In essence, the program accepts that people use illicit drugs while attempting to save lives by protecting against the accidental consumption of fentanyl in products laced with the powerful opioid. 

“Harm reduction programs like this one are a huge part of how we better protect people, how we get them into treatment,” California Health and Human Services Secretary Mark Ghaly said in a statement. “Shame isn’t a solution; support and science-driven policy is.”

First responders, community groups, public agencies and schools are among the organizations that are eligible to receive the strips for free through the state-funded program. 

The strips will be provided through the state’s Naloxone Distribution Project, which distributes the lifesaving drug naloxone, also known by the brand name Narcan – a nasal spray that can revive a person in a few minutes. 

“It’s a good step,” said Chelsea Shover, an assistant professor-in-residence at the UCLA David Geffen School of Medicine. “No one solution is going to solve the overdose crisis, but test strips, along with the naloxone and other strategies, are an important part of the solution.”

California’s soaring overdoses in recent years have prompted officials to expand access to naloxone across every corner of the state, especially as the opioid has become more common and in some cases tainted fake pills. 

The program’s inclusion of schools has at times drawn criticism from parents arguing it could enable drug use But fentanyl’s widespread presence means a wide range of people are at risk, from teenagers and party goers to those living on the streets.

While statewide figures on opioid deaths haven’t been released yet for 2023, there are signs the crisis has been worsening. In San Francisco, for example, opioid-related deaths more than doubled last year to a record 813, of which more than 650 were attributed to fentanyl. 

The test strips, while useful, are a “marginal” intervention tool compared to naloxone, said Keith Humphreys, a psychologist and professor at Stanford University.

“It’s not that I’m against them – I just think that they don’t make that much difference one way or the other,” he said. “But naloxone is a miracle.” 

Since California’s distribution project was first launched in 2018, the state has distributed more than 3.9 million naloxone kits, which it credits with reversing approximately 250,000 overdoses. 

Since reversals are often underreported, the number could be much higher, according to the state health and human services department, which said the project is “likely the largest program of its kind” in the US.

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.