The Oregon Health Authority links rise in preventable drug deaths to disruption caused by the novel coronavirus.

FILE PHOTO - An Evzio auto-injection device delivers a dose of Naloxone in the event of an opioid overdose. Recorded drug overdose deaths jumped 40% in Oregon in the first half of 2020, according to state health experts.

According to the Oregon Health Authority, at least 339 people died of drug overdoses between January and June of this year, compared with 244 people during the same time frame in 2019.

In the second half of 2019, 252 people died of overdoses, but comparable data for 2020 is not yet available.

"Food insecurity and disruptions in access to safe housing and mental health services have compounded stress from job losses, school and social isolation, and other problems brought on by the pandemic," said OHA Deputy State Health Officer Tom Jeanne.

The increase is part of a grim national trend. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports 81,000 deaths between June 2019 and May 2020, the highest ever loss of life reported in a 12-month period.

"Disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard," was the CDC's conclusion.

The OHA reports 580 overdose deaths in Oregon during the same period. The agency said the bulk of the deaths happened in the second quarter of the year — rising in April, peaking in May — before returning to near monthly averages in June and July. At its apex, drug deaths were 63% higher year-over-year, and pending toxicology reports suggest another "concerning increase" will be on the chart for November as well.

"The COVID crisis also interrupted ways people with substance use disorder can get help, such as mental health services, 12-step programs and ambulatory visits," Jeanne said.

Abuse of fentanyl, an illegal synthetic opioid, and methamphetamine are believed to be the primary drivers of the spike. Meth deaths rose 37% and fentanyl deaths rose 92% year-over-year, compared with a smaller 9% rise in heroin deaths and 57% rise in cocaine deaths.

Researchers say cocaine deaths are linked to contaminated forms of the substance mixed with fentanyl or other drugs.

The Health Authority notes that Oregon has 9,200 active methadone patients, mostly in the Interstate 5 corridor. State and rural communities "are lacking in access," the report reads.

The agency distributed $2.4 million in harm-reduction supplies, including naloxone, to 68 addiction support agencies in 2020, and the Health Authority continues to support policing in the Oregon/Idaho High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, according to a news release.

Zane Sparling
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