‘They’re Not Calling 911’: Overdose Deaths Are Spiking in Pennsylvania

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By Cassandra Stone

April 24, 2020

York County coroner Pam Gay said opioid deaths in York County tripled in March compared to January. She believes it’s a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Health officials are raising the alarm about an increase in overdose deaths during the novel coronavirus pandemic. Records show a recent spike in opioid-related deaths in March, which could be related to people feeling reluctant to seek emergency services in the event of an overdose during the current health crisis.

Both York County and Erie’s Chautauqua County Health and Human Services report an increase in opioid-related deaths from March 1-29, according to Local 21 News. Many variables could be contributing to the increase in overdoses, according to substance abuse experts.

“They’re not calling 911 necessarily if someone’s overdosing,” Brittany Shultz, a substance abuse specialist at York County Opioid Collaborative, told the news station. Schultz said a combination of fear and substance abuse is a “recipe for disaster.” An increase in isolation can also contribute to an increase in substance abuse.

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Research shows more than two million Americans use opioids, and half a million use meth each week. In 2018, 46,000 Americans died of overdoses. Though there is a widespread strain nationwide on the healthcare system during the pandemic, the U.S. is still in the middle of an opioid crisis.

Officials in Chautauqua County have also reported a noticeable increase in overdose deaths. From March 29th to 31st alone, there were five overdoses and two deaths. “Due to circumstances, officials believe this spike is due primarily to street drugs, especially heroin, being laced with fentanyl,” the county said recently.

York County coroner Pam Gay confirmed opioid deaths in York County tripled in March from January’s number. Gay believes it’s a direct result of the COVID-19 pandemic. “In March, we saw 24 drug opioid-related deaths, and in April we’ve already seen 17 suspected opioid-related deaths,” she said.

The Cumberland County coroner’s office is seeing a similar pattern in opioid-related deaths. “In one week in April, we saw nine opioid overdoses,” said Cumberland County Coroner Charles Hall. He told Local 21 News he believes his county will far surpass last year’s number of opioid-related deaths.

While in-patient treatment for substance abuse is still an available resource, the novel coronavirus pandemic has temporarily shuttered other treatment options, like support group meetings and outpatient resources.

“Although treatment services continue to be in place, if you’re using an online format via Zoom or on the phone, it’s not quite the same as when you’re in person talking to somebody,” Shultz said. 

While COVID-19 has a disproportionate impact on various vulnerable populations, people with drug addictions are facing their own distinct challenges amid COVID-19. Daily stressors and triggers like unemployment, finances, lack of social support, food insecurity, mental health, and physical health can be worsened by the pandemic.

“Individuals with substance abuse have pre-existing damage to their lungs, so they’re one of those vulnerable populations,” Shultz said. “Due to their health condition, they may take longer to recover, or it could be fatal.”


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