Death Marches On –  

December 6, 2020 – In a study published in JAMA Psychiatry this week, researchers monitoring an emergency medical systems database in 47 states found that medics were responding to more than double the number of overdose-related cardiac arrests in May, at the height of the pandemic lockdowns, than they had in 2018 and 2019.

“There have been controversies around the lockdowns — people arguing the treatment is worse than the disease, that it’s going to cause mental health and substance use issues, and that we shouldn’t have lockdowns,” said Leo Beletsky, a Northeastern University professor who runs the school’s Health in Justice Action Lab and was one of the study’s authors.  “That’s not what we’re saying. What we’re saying is that when you design COVID response measures, you have to keep in mind that additional measures are necessary to mitigate the negative consequences of these mandates to stay home,” he said.

“People need access to [overdose reversal drugs] and treatment. People need access to economic and social supports. And in all of those, the COVID response measures are really lacking.”  In Philadelphia, between January and March 2020, 273 people died from overdoses. Between April and June, there were 309 fatal overdoses — the highest number in a single quarter since the third quarter of 2017.

“It’s preliminary still, but Quarter 3 of 2020 is going to look even worse than that,” said Kendra Viner, the director of the Division of Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction at the city health department.

The drugs driving the city’s fatal overdoses are shifting as well. More people are dying with a combination of a stimulant like cocaine and the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl in their systems. Prescription opioids — long targeted by law enforcement and the medical community — are much less of a factor than illicit drugs. Philadelphia’s heroin supply, once famous for its purity, now is virtually all tainted with fentanyl, officials say.

And finding victims with a combination of stimulants and opioids, which act as depressants, suggests fentanyl contamination is spreading, killing drug users who never built up a tolerance for opioids, making even a small dose of fentanyl deadly, health officials said.



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