WASHINGTON – The COVID-19 pandemic and a growing supply of dangerous drugs have combined to increase overdose deaths in the United States by 27.6% over a 12-month period from 2020 to 2021, an increase in the number of death that was matched in Arizona.
Nationally, the 98,331 drug overdose deaths reported from April to April set a record, according to the data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which said the national number of overdose deaths in the previous 12 months was 77,011.
The increase in Arizona almost exactly matched the U.S. rate, from 2,146 overdose deaths between April 2019 and April 2020 to 2,743 deaths the following year, an increase of 27.8%, according to the data.
Although the revised numbers for April did not exceed 100,000, as expected, they still set a record for overdose deaths in the United States.
“With the pandemic, people are forced to use riskier means,” said Haley Coles, executive director of Sonoran Prevention Works. “It has also really changed the drug market.
“When we see people’s social and economic lives become more stressful, we see people start consuming more or in a riskier way,” Coles said. “And – now that we’ve encouraged people to self-isolate – when you’re alone and using, there’s no one to help you with an overdose. “
But the pandemic was not the only circumstance behind the increase in overdose deaths.
Dr Raminta Daniulaityte, associate professor at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions, said the state has seen an increase in the availability of counterfeit pills, also known as “blues” and “dirty oxys” .
A drug administration fact sheet said these counterfeits may appear to be legitimate prescription pills, like oxycodone, but may actually contain other ingredients or have lethal levels of drugs like fentanyl or methamphetamine.
“There is a market for these drugs,” Daniulaityte said. “And many people who were long-term users or who were exposed to prescriptions of pharmaceutical opioids – because of the regulations that were implemented – were simply cut off from sources and had no meaningful intervention.” to help them cope with their addiction and have been forced to turn to illicit opioids.
The regulations she was referring to were in Arizona 2018 Opioid epidemic Law, which limited healthcare professionals to prescribing initial opioid prescriptions with a maximum of five days of pills. It also banned them from prescribing opioids exceeding 90 milligram equivalents of morphine per day.
Will Humble, executive director of the Arizona Public Health Association, said state officials “dusted themselves off” after the law was passed and abandoned the lingering problem of opioid overdoses.
“In the years since the act, the number of fentanyl-related deaths really skyrocketed and the deaths from prescribed drugs leveled off,” Humble said. “As Arizona cracked down on prescription opioids, we did not improve the network available for people to receive treatment for their opioid use disorders. “
But Sheila Sjolander, deputy director of the Arizona Department of Health Services, defended the state’s continued response, saying the department has implemented strategies to help fight the opioid epidemic.
“One of the strategies, in terms of saving lives, is to get naloxone out into the community,” Sjolander said.
Naloxone is a drug that reverses an overdose by blocking the effects of an opioid, according to the CDC. The life-saving medicine can be used as a nasal spray or an auto-injector.
First responders, Sjolander said, have set up “drop-out programs,” where they will leave doses of naloxone for people who overdosed but did not go to the hospital.
Coles said his organization had distributed more than half a million doses of naloxone and had received 17,000 overdose reversals reported to them as a result.
“We’ve been distributing naloxone – the overdose drug – for about five years now,” she said. “And continuing to distribute this naloxone primarily to people who use drugs is really crucial. “
But Coles said there was more to do.
“There is, unfortunately, so much stigma and discrimination and bad information about drugs that people are not able to take certain precautions,” she said. “And a lot of it is based on the fact that drug use is criminalized.”
Coles said incarcerating people for drug use “not only doesn’t work, it perpetuates the crisis” because people lose their tolerance in prison but use the same dose of drugs when they get out – which also explains the overdoses in the state.
“Our approach to dealing with drug use is just not effective,” Coles said. “We need continued support to fund programs that will allow us to reach those most at risk of overdose.”