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Overdose deaths hit record

The plague of synthetic opioids worsened in 2020

An injection drug user deposits used needles into a container in Miami. Associated Press/Photo by Lynne Sladky (file)

Overdose deaths hit record

In 2020, a record 621 people in San Francisco died of drug overdoses, up from 441 in 2019 and more than three times the number of COVID-19 deaths in the county. Across the country, the coronavirus killed far more people than illegal drugs did, but San Francisco’s plight underscores how the opioid epidemic continued to rage in the shadow of the pandemic.

In mid-December, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 81,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in the 12 months ending in May—the highest number ever recorded in one year. The CDC warned states must implement more prevention measures before the crisis worsens.

Abuse of prescription medications such as oxycodone initially drove the opioid crisis in the United States, with heroin dominating the scene after government agencies cracked down. Now synthetic opioids are more prevalent, and the CDC cites them as the primary driver of the overall increase in overdose deaths last year. Synthetic opioid–related deaths increased by nearly 40 percent in the 12 months ending in May 2020 compared to a similar time frame the prior year. Illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine, has flooded the drug market, sometimes mixed with drugs like cocaine or packaged as a prescription pill. In August, the Drug Enforcement Administration warned about a sharp rise in fentanyl overdoses in San Diego. In 2019, the city recorded 152 fentanyl overdose deaths. In the first half of 2020, preliminary numbers showed 203.

But the pandemic likely also contributed to the worsening opioid crisis. Without in-person counseling and groups, recovering addicts lost important support. Rehabilitation programs stopped accepting new clients for fear of spreading COVID-19, and addiction ministries lost money and volunteers. Danielle York—a recovering alcoholic in her mid-30s—was halfway through the rehab program at Providence House in Denver when the pandemic hit. She found herself with little human contact and lots of time. “When you don’t have a schedule it’s hard because your mind plays with you,” she said. “You’re stuck in your apartment thinking, ‘No one would know.’”

Charissa Koh

Charissa is a WORLD reporter who often writes about poverty-fighting and criminal justice. She resides with her family in Atlanta.


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