Letters to the Editor • Opinion
The coronavirus might not be the worst of it
The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Rise in fatal drug overdoses in D.C. region likely tied to pandemic, officials say

A Narcan nasal device that delivers naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug.
A Narcan nasal device that delivers naloxone, an overdose-reversing drug. (Mary Altaffer/AP)
Placeholder while article actions load

Officials are warning of a recent increase in drug overdoses across the Washington region, saying the rise in deaths might be linked to the isolation of those struggling with addiction amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Statistics from D.C. attest to a grim trend: In April, the most recent month for which statistics are available, the city saw its largest monthly number of opioid overdoses in five years. It is part of a national trend of overdose increases that health experts say has accelerated in recent months.

According to a report from D.C.’s chief medical examiner, 47 people died of opioid overdoses in April — the most in a single month dating back to 2016. The report shows 140 people died of overdoses between January and April.

If that pace continues, the toll would exceed recent annual highs — in 2017 and 2019, when 281 people died — by 49 percent.

D.C. Department of Health spokeswoman Kimberly Henderson said isolation is a “known trigger for relapse.” She said department health providers are offering counseling remotely while outreach teams are deployed to areas seeing a rise in overdoses.

City officials are continuing to look for the root causes of the recent increase, she said.

“The wide variation in the data with decreases in February and March followed by a jump in April requires more data and analysis, including any impact of covid-19, which some federal officials have suggested is driving the national increase,” she said.

Other jurisdictions in the Washington region have also reported increases, saying they appear to be linked to the pandemic.

‘Cries for help’: Drug overdoses are soaring during the coronavirus pandemic

Prince George’s County is one of several Maryland jurisdictions to report year-over-year increases in opioid-related fatalities. According to a report from the Maryland Opioid Operational Command Center, established by Gov. Larry Hogan (R) in 2017 to respond to opioid deaths, the county saw 37 overdose fatalities in the first quarter of this year compared with 14 in the same period last year.

The state also saw increases in other kinds of drug-related fatalities, according to the report, including 136 alcohol-related deaths, a 13 percent increase from the first quarter of 2019.

Steven R. Schuh, the command center’s executive director, wrote in the report that there is a “near certainty of an accelerated substance use crisis as we emerge from the coronavirus pandemic.” He added: “Everybody involved in addressing the opioid crisis — every clinician, every advocacy group, every concerned parent, and every citizen — needs to renew their dedication to addressing this problem.”

Kathrin Hobron, an epidemiologist with the Virginia Department of Health, said the state had “anecdotally” seen an increase in suspected fatal overdoses, but data is available only through the first quarter of the year. In a report on overdoses, health officials estimated the state would record almost 1,700 such fatalities by year’s end — the highest annual toll since at least 2007.

The first cases of the novel coronavirus began to appear in early March across the Washington region, with stay-at-home orders issued in D.C., Maryland and Virginia at the end of that month. Numbers from some local jurisdictions reflect only the beginning of the pandemic, although Arlington County is reporting a “spike” in overdose fatalities through the past week.

Arlington has recorded 16 possible opioid overdoses this year through Tuesday — more than the annual totals for all but one of the previous five years — with five of those deaths coming in August.

“We have no direct evidence that the pandemic is fueling the crisis,” Arlington police spokeswoman Ashley Savage wrote in an email. “Given timing, the loss of income and jobs and the isolation of stay at home orders it’s likely a factor.”

Not every jurisdiction has seen an increase in fatal overdoses. In Fairfax County, for example, police said year-to-date overdoses are the same as last year, at 46.

Between March 1 and Aug. 13 in Montgomery County, according to a police spokesman, there were 29 fatal overdoses compared with 35 last year — although the 2020 number does not include eight “suspected overdose deaths” with toxicology reports pending.

One doctor is working to fight D.C.’s opioid epidemic, even as a pandemic rages

Increases in some jurisdictions reflect a national trend during the pandemic. Last month, data obtained by The Washington Post showed overdoses have increased across the country since the pandemic began and are accelerating as it persists.

Jeff Beeson, deputy director of the Washington/Baltimore High Intensity Drug Trafficking Areas program, a Justice Department initiative to fight drug use in the region, said there had been a “statistically significant increase” in overdoses since the start of the pandemic compared with last year, including in Maryland, Virginia and D.C.

“It could be a number of reasons,” he wrote in an email. “Greater availability of drugs on the street, lockdown orders impacting in-person services to drug users or a general increase in drug use.”

Alexandria authorities said there is no noticeable rise in overdose deaths during the pandemic, but they recently responded to eight nonfatal overdoses in eight days — an unusually high number of incidents. Emily Bentley, the city’s director of opioid response, said one danger for those struggling with drugs amid the pandemic is the idea that no one is available to help.

“Whether or not covid stress is causing these increases, it’s important to send the message that help is still available,” she said. “People have not gone away . . . people do not need to wait for covid to be over to address their problem.”

Scott Purcell, 59, who has helped run Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Washington for more than 20 years, said those who wish to stop using during the pandemic can still attend meetings on Zoom. He has also helped organize a socially distant meeting outside on Sundays in an Adams Morgan park.

But Purcell, a commercial real estate broker who beat a ­two-decade heroin habit in 1997, said the isolation of quarantine will be an obstacle for many needing treatment, especially when some recovery programs are not accepting patients because of covid-19 fears.

“For newer people that need that human connection, it seems to be pretty difficult,” he said. “As they say, ‘An addict alone is in bad company’ . . . I think there are going to be a lot of people who don’t get a chance to get clean.”