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York County had a record number of overdose deaths in 2020

Harper Ho
York Dispatch
Photo illustration by Dawn J. Sagert

More people in York County died of drug overdoses in 2020 than in any other year on record, according to the York County Coroner's Office. 

Officials believe the coronavirus shutdown exacerbated opioid deaths in part by cutting people off from access to in-person recovery support services. Coupled with the hardships of the pandemic, such as COVID-19 related stress and isolation, experts say, some turned to drugs as an escape.

Drug overdoses had declined in York County for two years following a peak of 171 deaths in 2017— when the opioid pandemic swept through much of the country.

But 2020 surpassed the record with 187 deaths related to drugs, with the causes of an additional 17 cases still pending, according to the coroner's office. 

"It's that busy right now between the COVID and the opioid deaths," Coroner Pam Gay said. "We just knew from February, March on we were very busy, and we've been working hard, long hours like a lot of people with the impact of this (pandemic)."

Of the 187 fatal overdoses, 164 were from fentanyl and heroin, and the rest were a combination of other opioids such as methadone and suboxone or substances other than opioids, including cocaine and alcohol. 

Compare that with 141 deaths in 2019 and 156 deaths in 2018.

January began with seven drug deaths; then the overdoses leaped to 16 in February and climbed to 20 in March — when COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in the United States.

The number of deaths per month from April to July hovered near 20 before dropping to 10 in August.

"There was a time back, I would say early summer, when we were debating looking at refrigerated morgue space because we were concerned that we were so full at the hospital with our drug cases that it was presenting a problem with space," Gay said. "Fortunately, I didn't get to that point."

September had the highest number of fatal overdoses at 23, and then there were 20 in October. November saw 11, and December had four, not including the 17 pending cases. 

Alyssa Rohrbaugh, vice president of Not One More in York, said the pandemic affected drug-related deaths in a variety of ways.

She said the shutdown was doubly dangerous for recovering addicts and people who were released from prison or rehab. First, it stopped in-person support or shifted it online.

"Some people no longer had that one-on-one contact. The world shut down," Rohrbaugh said. "They need that. They need the in-person AA, NA meetings and to be able to see their sponsors and to interact with other people in recovery." 

She said the loss of contact was the beginning of the downfall for some folks because in-person support makes all the difference in the recovery process.

Second, Rohrbaugh said, stimulus checks and unemployment benefits indirectly provided people with the means to purchase narcotics.

"Money in the hands of somebody who's not stable is dangerous. So that's what happened," she said. "For us, we continued to pay our bills, or people who were struggling — they did their best. But for people in recovery that were on the verge of a relapse or had relapsed, that's the last thing they think about."

Not One More is a national nonprofit organization that was formed to provide awareness, education and support to those affected by drug abuse and addiction. It offers services including scholarships to families affected by drug abuse.

The coroner's office reaches out to the organization to assist loved ones when responding to fatal overdose calls.

FILE - In this April 5, 2019, file photo, containers depicting OxyContin prescription pill bottles lie on the ground in front of the Department of Health and Human Services' headquarters in Washington as protesters demonstrate against the FDA's opioid prescription drug approval practices. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

York County's 2020 drug deaths show the county falls in line with what's happening nationally, where opioid deaths have also set a record during the pandemic.

More than 81,000 Americans died of opioid use between June 2019 and May 2020, which was an 18% jump from the previous 12-month period, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Gay said York County's record opioid deaths could have happened in 2020 even without COVID-19. She said that while she doesn't know exactly how the pandemic worsened the crisis, she knows York County is not alone.

 "It will be interesting to see years from now how they determine that, but I don't think I'm the only county that's noticing that. There are other counties that are noticing an increase in their opioid deaths. After two years of going down slightly each year, we feel that obviously COVID played a role," Gay said. 

Rohrbaugh echoed that message and said drug use is an epidemic with or without the pandemic, adding that addiction and recovery is played like a broken record because "at the end of the day, they have to want" help.

"Obviously we have a real problem. We can't blame it all on COVID because the problem existed before COVID," Gay said. "It's not easy managing a pandemic, let alone trying to manage an epidemic in the middle of it. And the epidemic has been there for years. So it's going to be here when COVID leaves."