Despite pandemic, fatal overdoses decrease in 2020

Monitor staff
Published: 1/19/2021 1:45:16 PM

Amid the deadly pandemic, New Hampshire is expected to have fewer fatal overdoses in 2020 than in 2019, the fourth year in a row this statistic has decreased. 

Very early in the pandemic, experts and first responders warned that COVID-19, and all of the restrictions and lockdowns created by it, created a number of risk factors for those struggling with addiction, such as economic instability and anxiety. 

There were several indications those struggling with addiction were not doing well— alcohol sales were up 10%,  treatment providers were seeing far fewer people seeking help, and there were more overdoses than in 2019 for most months of the summer. Just a couple months after the coronavirus struck, they were disturbed to find very few people were going to emergency rooms for help with substance abuse which likely meant people weren’t getting the help they needed.

Now, a different picture seems to be emerging. During each month since August, the number of deadly overdoses has decreased compared to the year before.

New Hampshire cataloged 30 fatal overdoses in December 2020, whereas in December 2019 nearly 50 people died. While all of the cases aren’t finalized, the state seems to be on track have about 13 fewer fatal overdoses in 2020 than in 2019. 

Furthermore, deaths involving cocaine went significantly down this year— from about 79 fatal overdoses last year to 51 overdoses in 2020, the lowest number of cocaine related overdoses since 2017. The number of deaths involving methamphetamine slightly decreased from 52 in 2019 to 49 in 2020. 

About 65% of the overdoses this year were caused by fentanyl or a combination of fentanyl and another drug. About 6% of the deaths were caused by other opiates. 

A decrease in overdose deaths doesn’t necessarily mean opioid abuse is declining, said Jeff Stewart, the director of Project FIRST. He said a decline in fatal overdoses might be attributed to the increased availability of Narcan, a drug that can reverse an overdose. He added that many drug users treat each other with Narcan, rather than going to the emergency room, which may further skew the data.

He said a more accurate measure of the problem might be the number of people entering treatment programs for opioid addiction.

Keith Howard, the executive director of HOPE for New Hampshire Recovery, said his center hands out Narcan to nearly everyone who comes through the facility in the hopes they might save someone from overdosing. 

“We hand out Narcan like Halloween candy,” he said.

The drug immediately reverses the effects of opioids and is not addictive. 

Even though the decrease in fatal overdoses might not directly indicate an improvement in the state’s addiction epidemic, he said it’s an improvement from years ago when Narcan wasn’t so widely accessible. 

“Very few dead people get into recovery,” he said. 

Jake Berry, the vice president of policy at health nonprofit New Futures, said certain aspects of substance abuse treatment have changed for the better during the pandemic, which might partly be responsible for the decline in overdoses.

New Hampshire passed legislation early in the pandemic that allowed providers to offer treatment over video conference or phone call. Without long drives to treatment centers, providers saw attendance rates increase. 

New Hampshire has consistently had one of the highest rates of overdose deaths in the country. In 2019, New Hampshire ranked third for the most overdoses per 100,000 people. The state has had the highest rate of fentanyl overdose deaths per capita in the United States for many years, according to a study published in April.

Teddy Rosenbluth bio photo

Teddy Rosenbluth is a Report for America corps member covering health care issues for the Concord Monitor since spring 2020. She has covered science and health care for Los Angeles Magazine, the Santa Monica Daily Press and UCLA's Daily Bruin, where she was a health editor and later magazine director. Her investigative reporting has brought her everywhere from the streets of Los Angeles to the hospitals of New Delhi. Her work garnered first place for Best Enterprise News Story from the California Journalism Awards, and she was a national finalist for the Society of Professional Journalists Best Magazine Article. She graduated from UCLA with a bachelor’s degree in psychobiology.

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