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Oregon trends with U.S. in accelerated drug overdoses

Dec. 23, 2020

 State saw nearly 40% increase in overdose deaths over 2019 and during first half of 2020 as CDC links U.S. increase to pandemic disruptions

PORTLAND, Ore. — Oregon is following a national trend that has seen increases in drug overdose deaths in 2020 – a rise that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is partially attributing to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Oregon’s 580 deaths from drug overdoses are among the more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths that occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020. According to a Dec. 17 report from the CDC, that was the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period. The federal agency surmised that the “disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic  has hit those with substance use disorder hard.”

“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 Tom Jeanne, MD, MPH, deputy state health officer and deputy state epidemiologist, OHA Public Health Division. “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.”

From January to June 2020, at least 339 people died of a drug overdose in Oregon. This figure is nearly 40% higher than the number of overdose deaths  from the same period in 2019 and represents an increase of nearly 35% from the previous six-month period, July to December 2019.

As OHA has previously reported, there was a spike of drug overdose deaths during the second quarter of 2020. When compared to the second quarter of 2019, the number of overdose deaths increased by more than 63%. Overdose deaths increased in April, reached a peak in May and returned to near-monthly averages in June and July.

While most overdose deaths in Oregon in 2020 have involved opioids, illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, and methamphetamines have been troubling contributors to the drug overdose rate, mirroring national trends.

Illegal fentanyl and methamphetamine abuse appear to have driven the spike in overdose deaths in the second quarter of 2020. Compared to the first quarter of 2020, overdose deaths in Oregon involving methamphetamine/amphetamine increased 37%; those involving fentanyl, 92%; heroin, 9%; and cocaine 57%. Previous research suggests that deaths involving cocaine are likely linked to co-use or contamination with fentanyl or other drugs.

Although exact numbers of overdose from recent months have yet to be updated due to pending toxicology test results, early data showed a concerning increase of suspected drug overdose deaths in November.

In line with CDC recommendations, OHA is taking steps to reduce drug overdose deaths:

  • More than 9,200 active methadone patients in Oregon are receiving methadone through Oregon’s opioid treatment providers (OTPs). Most OTPs are concentrated along the Interstate 5 corridor serving Oregon’s four largest metropolitan areas. As of September 2019, Oregon also had 1,360 practitioners federally certified to prescribe buprenorphine. Coastal and rural communities in Oregon are lacking in access to medication for opioid use disorder (MOUD).  
  • The PRIME+ (Peer Recovery Initiated in Medical Establishments) program provides peer-based harm reduction support for persons who are currently using drugs and are present in medical settings. The program aims to reduce overdoses and infections related to harmful drug use. PRIME+ peer support specialists assist people who are using drugs by providing access to naloxone, safer use supplies, HIV and hepatitis C testing, primary care, substance use treatment and more. The PRIME + program is in the process of expanding to 23 sites in 20 counties in Oregon.
  • Oregon recently established a COVID-19 Harm Reduction Supply Clearinghouse to support agencies that serve people at risk of overdose. Supported agencies include community-based outreach, prevention and harm-reduction programs, withdrawal and substance use treatment programs, and rural and frontier first responders across Oregon. More than 68 organizations ordered $2.4 million in harm reduction supplies, including naloxone, to distribute to people at risk of overdose to prevent overdose deaths.
  • OHA, in collaboration with Oregon/Idaho HIDTA (High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area), is working with public safety and public health partners to implement ODMAP – a real-time suspected overdose surveillance data system to mobilize an immediate response to a sudden increase in overdose events in local communities. HIDTA recently found that a large number of narcotic pill seizures by participating law enforcement agencies through the third quarter of 2020, whichappear to be pharmaceutical narcotics like oxycodone, are likely counterfeits containing fentanyl.

Health officials are reminding people that opioid use disorder can be successfully treated. Those who need help to stop using opioids can talk to their health care providers or view OHA’s list of resources. In addition, Oregon law allows lay people to carry and use naloxone, a medication that can be used to reverse an opioid overdose on other people. Learn more about naloxone. If a person is using substances alone, the Never Use Alone Hotline (800-484-3731) can be a nonjudgmental and lifesaving point of contact for emergency services.

Oregon-based nonprofit Lines for Life and OHA recently launched the Safe + Strong Helpline at 1-800-923-4357 (800-923-HELP). The line offers free, 24-7 emotional support and resource referral to anyone who needs it — not only those experiencing a mental health crisis. The Safe + Strong Helpline is a response to needs for emotional support around disasters like COVID-19 and wildfires and was funded by the CARES Act. Callers are routed to a counselor who can provide emotional support, mental health triage, drug and alcohol counseling, crisis counseling or just connection.

Stay informed about COVID-19:

Oregon response: The Oregon Health Authority leads the state response.

United States response: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention leads the US response.

Global response: The World Health Organization guides the global response.