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US Overdose Deaths on Pace To Reach All-Time High Amid Lockdowns

Matthew Davidson was beating his heroin addiction. The 31-year-old was attending group recovery meetings. He had a restaurant job he liked. He was a doting uncle to a baby nephew.

Then the lockdowns hit.

Davidson lost his job. He stayed home, alone and depressed, in his apartment near Georgetown, Kentucky, his cousin, Melanie Wyatt, said.

On May 25, his girlfriend came home to find him dead of a drug overdose.

Davidson was part of a surge of overdose deaths that hit Kentucky this spring.

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May was its deadliest month for overdoses in at least five years. At the end of August, the state had seen almost as many overdose deaths as it had in all of 2019.

It is not alone. National data is incomplete, but available information suggests U.S. drug overdose deaths are on track to reach an all-time high.

Addiction experts blame the coronavirus pandemic, which has left people stressed and isolated, disrupted treatment and recovery programs, and contributed to an increasingly dangerous illicit drug supply.

Even before the pandemic even arrived, the U.S. was in the midst of the deadliest drug overdose epidemic in its history, with a record 71,000 overdose deaths last year.

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This year’s tally likely will surpass that, according to preliminary data from nine states and national data on emergency responses to reported drug overdoses.

Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted a count through March, the month when stay-at-home orders and other lockdown measures began.

The numbers shows deaths trending up: Nearly 74,000 overdose deaths were counted from April 2019 to March 2020, up from the 68,000 reported for the same period one year earlier.

“The new CDC data confirms our fears that COVID-19 is exacerbating the already devastating overdose crisis,” said Jules Netherland, who oversees research at the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance.

The AP reviewed preliminary overdose death statistics from nine states with more recent counts — Colorado, Connecticut, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Missouri, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Texas and Washington.

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Most included data allowing comparisons to earlier years, and those numbers show overdose deaths outpacing what was reported during the same months of 2019, in some cases by substantial margins.

In Connecticut, for example, preliminary overdose death counts were up nearly 20 percent through the end of July. They were up 28 percent in Colorado through the end of August and 30 percent in Kentucky during that same period.

Available data does show an acceleration of overdoses since the beginning of lockdowns.

In nearly every state reviewed by the AP, overdose death counts reached their highest numbers in April or May and then dipped somewhat afterward.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the peak has passed. Numbers for more recent months will likely rise as more autopsies are finished.

There are other signs that overdoses are rising.

ODMAP, a project that tracks police and emergency calls responding to suspected overdoses in 49 states, found that 62 percent of counties that send data to the project saw increases after lockdowns started.

By another measure, initial overdose reports rose more than 17 percent.

“All indicators seem to be pointing to the fact that there is more drug-related activity — and, unfortunately, overdoses — nationally,” according to Jeff Beeson, deputy director of a federally authorized grant program that oversees ODMAP.

There’s no comprehensive data yet on which drugs were used in 2020 overdose deaths, but fentanyl and methamphetamine are now the most common killers.

Dr. Mark Tyndall, a University of British Columbia medical professor who researches overdose deaths, said the pandemic interfered with heroin importation. Meanwhile, meth and fentanyl have continued to proliferate.

“On the whole, COVID had further deteriorated the illegal drug supply. Made it even deadlier,” Tyndall said.

“That’s one reason why things are worse. The risk of you injecting poison is higher than it was before COVID.”

Then there’s the impact on addiction treatment and counseling.

As stay-at-home orders and other measures were put in place, counseling sessions were forced to move online.

“It’s not the same as being in a place with that depth of connection that we have from in-person engagement, because connectedness is one of the drivers of recovery,” according to Robert Pack, who researches addiction issues at East Tennessee State University.

With job losses, isolation and depression, people are “going to be challenged in every direction,” Pack said.

That’s what happened to Matthew Davidson in Kentucky.

He died of a fentanyl overdose, but Wyatt blames her cousin’s death on lockdown measures.

“Had this isolation not been going on, maybe someone would have been with Matthew,” Wyatt said. “There’s a good chance somebody could have been there that could have saved him.”

Wyatt said her cousin last went to rehab about a year and a half ago, and it appeared to help him. He had been benefiting greatly from his group addiction recovery meetings, but those ended when the lockdown struck.

“Being surrounded by good people, sober people, is the most important thing for a drug addict in recovery,” Wyatt said. “When that’s gone, trouble is going to happen.”

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