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Before Pandemic, Drug-Overdose Deaths Slid, But Not for All

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Tuesday, June 9, 2020   

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, drug-overdose deaths were down across the nation for the first time in 20 years, according to a new report by the Rockefeller Institute of Government. But since the coronavirus stay-at-home orders, county health offices are reporting more overdose deaths and more calls for drug-overdose antidotes.

Leigh Wedenoja, senior policy analyst at the Institute, said one reason among many for the recent spike is that people have been trapped at home away from access to treatment.

"They're also looking for new sources of drugs that might be of different potency than they're accustomed to, which can also lead to changes in the probability of an overdose for a long-time user," Wedenoja said.

Overdose numbers for West Virginia, a hotspot for opioid abuse, decreased by 12% from 2017 to 2018, according to the report. That's the lowest rate since 2015.

The study is based on the most recent mortality statistics from the Centers for Disease Control, which take more than a year to compile. It shows that the drop in overall overdose deaths was driven largely by a decrease among white Americans.

But Wedenoja said overdose death rates and total overdose deaths continued to rise for people of color.

"One of the reasons for this is a lot more deaths in black communities, Native American and Asian communities are likely to involve an illegal stimulant, either cocaine or methamphetamine," she said. "Opioid-only deaths, white deaths, are going down, but these other deaths are going up."

The report found overdose deaths of black West Virginians increased from 63 to 68 deaths per 100,000 people in 2018. Meanwhile, white overdose deaths in the state went down from 54 per 100,000 to 47.


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