022021 Sandy Pua  Memorial 13.jpeg

Sandy Pu'a, a native of American Samoa and former Hancock College player and coach, was honored with a memorial service at the Hancock College football field Feb. 20. He died from a fentanyl overdose Feb. 5. 

Sandy Pu’a, a former offensive line coach for Hancock College’s football team, died from a fentanyl overdose in February, according to a San Luis Obispo County Sheriff-Coroner’s autopsy report.

The report lists “complications of acute fentanyl intoxication” as Pu’a’s sole cause of death. No contributing factors were listed.

An autopsy was conducted Feb. 9 and toxicology results were released to the coroner March 22. The coroner's report was released May 25, although a sheriff's investigation into circumstances surrounding Pu'a's death is ongoing, according to spokesman Tony Cipolla.

Pu'a, who was 42, died at Marian Regional Medical Center the night of Feb. 5 after deputies found him unresponsive at a gathering in Nipomo earlier that evening, according to the report. 

Hundreds of family members, friends, colleagues, former classmates and players attended Pu'a's memorial service Feb. 20, paying tribute to the United Parcel Service worker and coach of 17 years. 

“Our Allan Hancock family is still grieving the tragic loss of coach Pu’a,” said Kim Ensing, Hancock athletic director. “We remain in support with our arms around his family as they continue to mourn the loss of a beloved father, husband and friend. This tragic discovery is yet another example of the current opioid crisis in our country and serves a reminder that even the strongest community pillars can be affected.”

Hancock College implements a drug testing and abuse intervention/prevention education policy for student-athletes, although the policy doesn’t explicitly mandate testing for coaches and staff.

Sheriff’s deputies responded to the gathering at a Nipomo residence shortly after 6 p.m. Feb. 5 to assist medics, following a report that a male had fallen and was unresponsive. The male, who has not been identified, was revived with Narcan, according to the report. 

While on scene, deputies located a second unresponsive male, identified as Pu'a, who was transported to the hospital and pronounced dead at 7:06 p.m. 

During their investigation, deputies did not observe foul play but did note a lack of cooperation from those at the gathering, according to the report. 

They also located a small bag containing a white powdery substance in a cigarette carton in Pu'a's pocket that was later tested by the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff's Crime Lab. The substance was found to be fentanyl, according to the report. 

A toxicology screen revealed that Pu'a had a fentanyl concentration of 25 nanograms per milliliter. According to Cipolla, fentanyl amounts exceeding 20 nanograms are “associated with death."

In its prescription form, fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that's administered for pain, but the medication was not one of the prescriptions ascribed to Pu'a in the sheriff's report. 

Pu'a's toxicology screen also showed the presence of naloxone, a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose.

Sheriff's officials are continuing their investigation into the source of the fentanyl, according to Cipolla. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control, synthetic opioid deaths, other than methadone, accounted for 67% of opioid-related deaths in 2018. In 2019, they accounted for nearly 73% of opioid-related deaths. 

The number of fentanyl-related deaths also is increasing locally. 

In 2020, 34 drug-related deaths in San Luis Obispo County involved fentanyl, compared to 11 in 2019, according to Cipolla. In 2021, as of May 26, 10 drug deaths involved fentanyl, he added.

In Santa Barbara County, fentanyl-related deaths increased from 12 in 2018 to 37 in 2019, although that number dipped slightly to 32 deaths in 2020, according to Sheriff’s Office spokeswoman Raquel Zick.

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