Washington D.C. and Philadelphia are set to reach a record number of fatal drug overdoses this year—in what experts say is a reflection of how the pandemic is worsening the opioid crisis.
According to the Washington Post, the nation’s capital has already surpassed last year’s total number of fatal overdoses, recorded at 282 at the end of August, already one higher than the entirety of 2019.
Similarly, Philadelphia is also set to reach a record number, with a combined 582 deaths in their first and second quarter of 2020 alone, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer. Their third quarter is expected to be even worse.
Although over 100 miles apart, there’s one thing that brings the two cities’ opioid problem together: fentanyl.
Some 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, fentanyl is a powerful opioid used to treat and manage severe pain, usually after surgery, according to the National Institute of Health.
Fentanyl on its own has the potential to become a very dangerous and addictive drug. However when combined with other drugs like cocaine and heroin, it can lead to much more dangerous effects for people who use it.
In Philadelphia, more victims of fatal drug overdoses have been found with a combination of stimulants and fentanyl in their system, rather than prescription opioids, which are often thought to be the culprit of fatal overdoses, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer.
“Finding victims with a combination of stimulants and opioids, which act as depressants, suggests fentanyl contamination is spreading, killing drug users who never built up a tolerance for opioids, making even a small dose of fentanyl deadly,” said the article.
The problem isn’t necessarily unique to Philadelphia. In fact, Washington D.C. noted that the “continued rise of the potent additive fentanyl is one reason the city has been unable to stem the tide,” according to the Washington Post.
The increase of fatal overdoses is reflective of a national spike since the coronavirus pandemic isolated people at home.
For those who live alone, separation from a support group or loved ones who could be present in the situation of an overdose makes isolation even more harmful.
Both cities noted the importance of an increased awareness and use of naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose.
DC Mayor Muriel Bowser sponsored legislation last year to supply police and public health officials with naloxone. Many opioid users also carry naloxone with them in case of a potential overdose.
This unfortunately doesn’t help people who unknowingly consume drugs laced with fentanyl.
“Individuals who are opioid-naive — we haven’t been targeting them with naloxone or overdose prevention and training or outreach,” said Kendra Viner, the director of the Division of Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction at the District’s health department.
“There are all these new populations we need to interface with.”
For years, whites in Philadelphia were more likely to die of drug overdoses. This changed in the city’s second quarter this year, where the amount of Black people dying from fatal overdoses almost doubled.
“In white communities, there are billboards about drug use. [In Black communities], there’s less information about it, there’s less outreach about it,” said Mary Craighead, who runs Prevention Point, a public health organization in the city.
The national spike in fatal overdoses also calls for legislation that provides more care and resources to those struggling with an addiction or drug use.
“People need access to [overdose reversal drugs] and treatment,” Leo Beletsky a professor from Northeastern University, told The Philadelphis Inquirer.
‘[They] need access to economic and social supports. And in all of those, the COVID response measures are really lacking.”
Measures in D.C. that expand “good samaritan” laws, “decriminalize drug paraphernalia” and allow for increased carry of overdose treatments like naloxone were approved Tuesday, but still need to be signed by Mayor Bowser.
“People are having to deal with not being able to work, not having economic resources. On top of homelessness, on top of joblessness, how do you cope with that? How do you not turn to something to offer you some peace?” said Michael Hinson, president of SELF inc.
This report was prepared by TCR justice reporting intern Emily Riley.