Overshadowed by the the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid crisis continues in the U.S and Southwestern Pennsylvania.
Stress, isolation, limited access to resources, and job losses are all factors that could be attributing to the rising rates of substance abuse and overdoses during the coronavirus epidemic, local experts said.
Last year, nearly 100 people died from accidental overdoses in Washington County, according to Coroner Tim Warco, while 12 people died in Greene in 2020.
“It’s very much a concern,” said Cheryl Andrews, executive director of the Washington County Drug and Alcohol Commission. “If we want to put a message out there, it’s that help is available. People can still go to treatment.”
According to the American Medical Association, more than 40 states reported an increase in opioid-related deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Additionally, a study published in JAMA Psychiatry showed that emergency department visits for drug overdoses were significantly higher from March to October 2020 – up nearly 29% – compared to the same period in 2019.
Andrews said not enough data has been collected yet to show what role COVID has played in the overdoses.
Warco said the county has had five overdose deaths within less than a week.
“We need to know these are statistics, but behind every number is a deceased person who has a family ... it’s a real human tragedy, and we need to fix it,” said Warco.
The disruption to daily life due to COVID-19 – 12-step groups met on Zoom instead of in person, for example – has upended the lives of those dealing with substance use disorder, said Karen Bennett, president of the board of directors at Harmony Life Center, a nonprofit that offers programs and activities for people in recovery.
Bennett said efforts to limit the spread of coronavirus, such as physical distancing, have changed the way people seek help, and some have been afraid to venture out during COVID.
That, Bennett said, has impacted how they keep up their treatments and participate in social supports.
“The depression, the isolation of persons in recovery or seeking help has had a big impact on the number of suicides and overdoses,” said Bennett.
The dozen people who died in Greene last year as the result of drug overdoses was down from 14 in 2019, but still up significantly from the four people who died in the county in 2018. Greene County Coroner Gene Rush said while the numbers last year were trending downward slightly amidst the pandemic, methamphetamine is making a comeback, along with a new and more powerful derivative of fentanyl.
“I think with this COVID situation, it’s kind of taking precedence right now,” Rush said. “But the drug users, for whatever the reasons – maybe they have more time on their hands – it doesn’t seem to deter them that much.”
The record for overdose deaths in Greene County came in 2016, when 19 people died as the opioid epidemic hit its peak. Rush said “heroin is taking a back seat” to meth and the newer version of fentanyl that provides a better high, but is also more dangerous.
“They’re always looking for something better,” Rush said of drug addicts.
The majority of overdose deaths in Greene County last year occurred in short timespans in July and October. Three people died in consecutive days in early July, while four people overdosed on fentanyl over a 10-day period in early October, according to the coroner’s statistics.
“(The number of deaths) has come down a little bit, but it’s still out there,” Rush said. “If they want it, they’re going to find it. They’re just changing drugs.”
In Washington County, 76 people people overdosed in 2018, down from 97 in 2017.
Andrews said the Washington County Opioid Overdose Coalition meets monthly to explore strategies to address the opioid problem, and to “make sure people do not fall off the radar during COVID.”