Opioid crisis: Drug overdose deaths up?

Drug overdose deaths in 2020 may eclipse Pennsylvania’s peak recorded just three years prior, public officials said.

Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jennifer Smith made the admission during a meeting with the Center for Rural Pennsylvania that discussed the intersection of the state’s opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It is quite frightening that we are seeing those numbers head back up again,” Smith said.

About 5,400 residents died from drug overdoses in 2017, or about 14 people every single day. That was the deadliest year on record for the state, with the rate more than doubling since 2012.

In 2019, that number declined to just over 4,400. The 2020 tally sits at 3,954. But this figure doesn’t include months worth of data; and that may not become final until the end of 2021, Smith cautioned.

Climbing rates of poverty, unemployment and social isolation induced by the pandemic underpin the dramatic rise, she said. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said 81,000 Americans died from a drug overdose last year. It was the highest amount on record. 

READ: Grand Jury takes on local opioid crisis

Rural counties see increase

Thirty-five out of 48 of Pennsylvania’s rural counties likewise saw an increase in emergency department visits related to opioid overdoses.

“We were down to 11 deaths per day, but we are way up to around 13 now,” Smith said. “And we still don’t have all the 2020 data yet.”

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the rural regions of the state face broader treatment access challenges unparalleled in urban areas. Many lack high speed internet and live an hour or more from a provider. He urged lawmakers to invest more money into drug and alcohol programs; and increase insurance parity to ensure broader access to telemedicine, medication assistance and other forms of treatment. 

“No one should be denied addiction or mental health treatment by their insurance company, or forced to jump through hoops that don’t exist for physical health treatment,” he said. “Again, drug addiction is a disease, not a crime, and insurance companies need to start treating it like any other disease.” 

Smith advocated against any further regulations on treatment providers, saying “we just can’t have that going forward.”

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Christen Smith

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania’s General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.