More than 330,000 Americans have died from COVID-19—with nearly 5,000 of those deaths in Maricopa County.
The pandemic is also being blamed for a frightening rise in drug overdoses.
According to a Dec. 18 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention press release, new data suggests “an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.”
According to the CDC, over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020—the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.”
Jared Garcia died of a drug overdose Oct. 2 outside his mother’s Glendale apartment. Asked if she feels the pandemic contributed to her son’s death, Stephanie Garcia did not hesitate.
“Absolutely,” she said. “It took away the ability for him to congregate—the isolation factor with drug abuse is huge. That’s where the drug wants you to be.”
Stephanie is not alone, as Glendale families are struggling with overdoses of their loved ones.
Though the numbers are “unofficial” and have not been finalized, Glendale Fire Department responded to 792 overdose calls through early December, a 10% increase over the 709 overdose calls in 2019.
Fortunately, most overdoses do not end in death. For example, paramedics used Narcan to save Jared a few months before his fatal overdose.
“There’s a gamut of overdose calls,” said Ashley Losch, a Glendale Fire Department spokeswoman.
“Overdoses can range from vomiting and dizzy to respiratory failure.”
In paramedics’ “drug boxes,” one of the most important tools is Narcan, a brand of naloxone.
The drug can immediately reverse the effects of opioids—snatching life back into someone taking gasping last breaths.
The overdose victims range from “known users” to “someone who used drugs for the first time.”
And the scene responders encounter can range from a crowded home filled with concerned family members to a lone victim in an empty park.
Once paramedics use Narcan and other tools to bring someone back from near death, one might assume the overdose victim would be overflowing with gratitude.
The reality is far from that.
“Often, when we take people out of an overdose with medication, they’re combative and want to fight us—we’ve ruined their high,” Losch said. “They don’t realize they’ve ‘coded.’”
Even after a patient returns to consciousness and insists, “I’m fine, leave me alone,” the responders do their best to convince the person to accept a ride to the hospital.
“They’ll say, ‘I don’t need to go to the hospital. I don’t want to go. Take the IV out of my arm. Leave me alone.’But with Narcan, it’s short-acting. We get nervous—they can easily slip back (into unconsciousness),” Losch said.
“We are very persistent about transporting people that have been given both an IV and medication. We usually give that for a good reason; we don’t give that just for fun.”
The idea that only injecting a drug like heroin can cause an overdose is also far from reality.
Here, as is the case around the country, a likely factor leading to increasing overdoses is the rise of fentanyl, a cheap, synthetic opioid that is many times more powerful than even heroin.
“A large dose of pure fentanyl—just touching it can kill you. That drug is extremely deadly, and people seem to be abusing it more often,” Losch said.
“We are absolutely running more fentanyl calls than ever before.”
According to the CDC, fentanyl overdoses increased 38% in the first part of 2020, compared to 2019.
Cocaine overdose deaths also spiked by 26%. “Based upon earlier research, these deaths are likely linked to co-use or contamination of cocaine with illicitly manufactured fentanyl or heroin,” said the CDC press release.
“That seems to be common; we’re seeing drugs laced with fentanyl,” Losch said.
For responders, overdose calls that end in death are difficult to shake.
“It’s horrible to watch a mom lose her child,” Losch said. “So much blame goes on.”
When the overdose call ends well, responders do their best to try to get the patient to at least think about entering a treatment program.
“A lot of times, we’ll have that conversation on the way to the hospital,” Losch said.
Most of the time, responders like Losch will get responses ranging from indifference to anger.
“At the end of day we know we did our best, we saved a life,” Losch said.
“I feel more for the family. They have to live with it until the person gets help—or they pass away.”
Death from drugs is an increasing concern around the country.
“The increase in overdose deaths is concerning,” said Deb Houry, director of CDC’s National Center for Injury Prevention and Control. “CDC’s Injury Center continues to help and support communities responding to the evolving overdose crisis.”
The American Medical Association shared the CDC’s concerns about rising overdoses during the pandemic.
“In addition to the ongoing challenges presented by the COVID-19 global pandemic, the nation’s opioid epidemic has grown into a much more complicated and deadly drug overdose epidemic. The AMA is greatly concerned by an increasing number of reports from national, state and local media suggesting increases in opioid- and other drug-related mortality—particularly from illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs,” said a recent AMA press release.
In Glendale, the biggest jump in overdose calls, according to Losch, was March—just as the pandemic hit Glendale. Increases also peaked in May, June and July—as the number of COVID-19 cases spiked and restrictions were placed on restaurants and other businesses.