WILLAMINA, Ore. — On Tuesday, Jan. 17, law enforcement officers in Yamhill County found what they believed was evidence of fentanyl use at Willamina High School: small pieces of aluminum foil with burned residue, which law enforcement officials said is a sign of someone smoking pills.
While at the school investigating an unrelated case, a Yamhill County Sheriff's deputy was called into a modular classroom on the campus to help investigate a suspicious odor coming from the bathroom.
"The school staff member came and said [to the deputy] we might have a problem," said Capt. Sam Elliott with the Yamhill County Sheriff's Office. "The deputy walked out to the modular classroom and within 20 seconds of going into the building, started to tell that something was not right."
The sheriff's office said that when the deputy entered the bathroom, they noted a strong, acrid smell and got students and staff to evacuate. Not long after, the deputy reportedly felt ill, as did a couple of other high school students.
According to deputies, first responders from the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Emergency Services arrived on scene and began to render aid to one student and checked on two other students. One student was transported via ambulance to Salem Hospital. The deputy who originally responded did receive treatment in the emergency department.
Elliott explained how Grand Ronde Tribal Police collected the evidence.
"There were a couple of small pieces of aluminum foil that had burned residue on them that is consistent with how we see individuals smoking pills," he said, "And the vast majority of the pills that they are encountering out there today do contain fentanyl."
It's not clear if fumes from burning fentanyl are what made the deputy and students sick. On Jan. 24, Elliott told KGW the blood drawn from the deputy during his hospital visit was "disposed" of by the hospital and was never tested for fentanyl.
"The deputy went to the hospital to sign a release so the results of the testing could be shared with the Sheriff's Office, and that is when we learned the blood was never tested, and the hospital claims they 'disposed' of the samples," Elliott said.
Elliott said the burned residue on the pieces of foil were taken by the Grand Ronde Tribal Police for testing. Elliott said he didn't know the timeline for when results from the crime lab would come back for that.
Over the past few years, concerns over first responders overdosing on the drug from just touching a pill or powder have largely been debunked. The danger of secondhand smoke from fentanyl is unclear, especially in an enclosed space. Public health officials in King County, Washington released an article last year that explained the risk of fentanyl exposure through secondhand smoke was low.
Elliott said within the past four days, deputies investigated fentanyl overdoses nearby involving adults in Willamina and in Sheridan. One of those overdoses was fatal.
"We've seen a strong transition away from primarily methamphetamine and heroine usage here in Yamhill County to where, I would say, it's almost daily where we are dealing with calls involving individuals that are either under the influence or admit that there is smoking pills or using fentanyl, or having overdoses."