Overdoses killed 1,214 Philadelphians in 2020, marking the town’s second-highest drug dying toll on document, and one seemingly worsened by COVID-19 lockdowns, metropolis officers stated.
Simply as they have been by the coronavirus deaths, Black Philadelphians have been hit hardest by overdose deaths, an alarming demographic shift in drug fatalities that started earlier than the pandemic and worsened in 2020.
Total, overdose deaths elevated by 9% from the yr earlier than. However deadly overdoses soared by 29% amongst Black Philadelphians, whilst they decreased by 10% amongst white Philadelphians. The dying charge amongst Hispanic Philadelphians remained about the identical from 2019 to 2020, although it had elevated in prior years.
Fentanyl remained the main drug killer in Philadelphia. The highly effective artificial opioid started making its means into the town’s heroin provide within the mid-2010s and was current in 84% of the town’s drug deaths final yr.
Deaths involving heroin and cocaine decreased, whereas deaths involving fentanyl and pharmaceutical opioids elevated. Fentanyl was current in 94% of all opioid-related deaths, and in 77% of stimulant-related deaths.
Deaths involving each stimulants and opioids, which have the alternative impact, have been on the rise for a number of years. However toxicology stories can not decide whether or not overdose victims are utilizing stimulants and opioids collectively deliberately, whether or not sellers are knowingly promoting stimulants minimize with opioids; or whether or not stimulants are being contaminated with fentanyl through the drug packaging course of.
The social distancing and lockdown insurance policies imposed to regulate the COVID-19 pandemic seemingly influenced the rise in overdose deaths in 2020, stated Jewell Johnson, a metropolis substance use epidemiologist.
For years, the vast majority of the town’s deadly overdoses have taken place in non-public properties. The lockdown solely made that pattern worse, metropolis officers imagine.
“We all know for a incontrovertible fact that a variety of our deadly overdoses occurred within the dwelling. Individuals stay alone they usually’re not being checked on by household or associates, and the percentages of fatally overdosing does improve,” Johnson stated. “I feel that’s the primary distinction when it comes to fatalities from 2019 to fatalities for 2020.”
Johnson additionally famous that pandemic-related unemployment amongst Black Philadelphians could also be linked to the excessive overdose dying toll in 2020.
All through 2019 and into the early months of 2020, the unemployment charge amongst Black overdose victims hovered round 30%. However within the second quarter of 2020 — as lockdowns started and thousands and thousands across the nation all of the sudden have been out of labor — the speed amongst Black overdose victims jumped to 48% %, and stayed excessive for the remainder of the yr. (Nationwide, the unemployment charge amongst Black Individuals was second solely to Hispanic Individuals on the top of the pandemic, and stays the best within the nation, three percentage points higher than the national average.)
Jim Garrow, a spokesperson for the well being division, stated metropolis officers believed that lockdown orders would seemingly have an effect on overdose deaths, and tried to mitigate that toll, persevering with to ship harm-reduction groups to Kensington, which nonetheless sees the best variety of overdose deaths within the metropolis. Coaching classes in utilizing Narcan, the overdose-reversal drug, have been provided on-line within the first months of the pandemic.
“Implementing public well being measures that the town believes saved lives exacerbated different issues that made it worse,” he stated. “When confronted with two evils, what’s the high concern? What’s the one that would most negatively have an effect on massive parts of the town? How can we goal it to ensure the harm we’re doing is minimized? It’s one thing we’re actively trying into. There’s no playbook for this.”
The town didn’t anticipate some geographic shifts in overdose deaths that emerged through the pandemic. Deadly overdoses rose in West Philadelphia, North Philadelphia and Southwest Philadelphia communities, away from typical overdose hotspots like Kensington and South Philadelphia.
“We do have a few of our hurt discount staff in South Philly,” Johnson stated, “however, we didn’t anticipate these particular zip codes [in West, North and Southwest Philadelphia] having such massive will increase in deadly overdoses.”
Garrow stated that the well being division has been inspired by some federal efforts to mitigate the results of the lockdowns. One instance: stress-free guidelines round prescribing buprenorphine, a preferred opioid habit remedy drug extra closely monitored by the federal authorities earlier than the pandemic. He stated he hoped the easing of these guidelines would get extra medical doctors prescribing buprenorphine — and extra Philadelphians into remedy.
And with COVID vaccines extra available and the town poised to completely reopen, Johnson stated she “would hope that the [overdose] traits decline.”
“However solely time will inform, sadly,” she stated.