Early indications show that overdoses are rising again

Drug overdoses are on the rise again. Local information and data from 2019 tracked by media outlets combined with early 2020 indicators show that overdoses are moving in the wrong direction. This is especially concerning after the state saw a decline, across Ohio, in overdoses in 2018. Data reported by county coroners from around the state shows an increase in overdose deaths of 5 percent in 2019.[1] Information tracked via emergency calls, police and hospitals showed stark increases in overdoses in March, April and May.[2] Local reports in Cuyahoga and Franklin counties show similar, concerning trends in overdose deaths.

In May, Cuyahoga County saw 68 overdose deaths.

In May, Cuyahoga County saw 68 overdose deaths — a record high number.[3] The number of overdose deaths declined in June, to 47.[4] This data includes overdoses from all drugs. Overdose deaths among African-Americans have also been increasing in Cuyahoga County, a trend that has been reflected in state level data over the last few years. While the Cuyahoga County data doesn’t show much of a pattern related to the months where the state was under the stay-at-home order due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the spike in May does seem to be somewhat related to the effects of the pandemic, according to the county medical examiner, Dr. Thomas Gilson. He shared that drugs began flowing from China and Mexico again, after a few months of declined activity due to the pandemic. He also stated that people who use drugs may have been using smaller quantities/lower doses of drugs during the stay-at-home order and once it was mostly lifted, they went back to dosages that their bodies could no longer handle.[5]

Drugs began flowing from China and Mexico again, after a few months of declined activity due to the pandemic.

Similar concerns have been reported in Franklin County. Franklin County did not have a decline in overdose deaths in 2018, like most of the rest of the state did. It continued to see an alarming rise in 2019, with its highest number of overdose deaths ever reported (597), that continued into 2020.[6] In fact, in the first quarter of 2020, the county saw a 55 percent increase in overdose deaths (191 between January and March 2020) over the same quarter in 2019 (123 between January and March 2019).[7] This is the most recent data available for Franklin County, so the full impact of the pandemic and stay-at-home order is not yet evident.

There is a several month lag in comprehensive data on drug overdose deaths and emergency calls for drug overdoses (that don’t always result in death), but data tracked by The Washington Post from emergency calls during the pandemic “suggest that overdoses have not just increased since the pandemic began but are accelerating as it persists.”[8] In the Post article discussing the national trends, Franklin County’s coroner, Dr. Anahi Ortiz, reflects on a 36-hour period where there were nine overdose deaths in the county.

Human support and interaction are key components to help keep people connected to harm reduction and recovery services.

While there is much more to learn about how the pandemic is impacting people with substance use disorders, one thing is very clear. Human support and interaction are key components to help keep people connected to harm reduction (naloxone, syringe service programs) and recovery services. These services are quite literally lifelines for people dealing with substance use disorders. Balancing public health and safety in the midst of a pandemic while maintaining access to these lifelines is no small feat. State and local leaders have thoughtfully discussed the mental health needs for many populations during these strange times, but based on the concerning overdose trends, there does seem to be a need to focus more attention on the needs of people dealing with substance use disorders and how to continue to maintain the connections that are so vital to safety and recovery.

[1] https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200721/ohio-drug-overdose-deaths-back-on-rise

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/07/01/coronavirus-drug-overdose/

[3] http://medicalexaminer.cuyahogacounty.us/pdf_medicalexaminer/en-US/HeroinFentanylReports/061020-HeroinFentanylReport.pdf

[4] http://medicalexaminer.cuyahogacounty.us/pdf_medicalexaminer/en-US/HeroinFentanylReports/070920-%20HeroinFentanylCocaine%20Update.pdf

[5] https://www.cleveland.com/news/2020/06/opioid-overdose-deaths-in-cuyahoga-county-spike-to-near-record-monthly-high-in-may.html

[6] https://www.dispatch.com/news/20200701/franklin-county-had-55-increase-in-overdose-deaths-in-1st-quarter-2020

[7] https://coroner.franklincountyohio.gov/getattachment/Media/2020-First-Quarter-Drug-Overdose-Deaths-Report/2020-First-Quarter-Drug-Overdose-Deaths-Report.pdf.aspx

[8] https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/2020/07/01/coronavirus-drug-overdose/