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'Recipe for disaster': Opioid ODs spike in York County amid COVID-19 pandemic

Liz Evans Scolforo
York Dispatch

Confirmed and suspected opioid deaths in York County tripled in March from January's number, and York County District Attorney Dave Sunday said there's no question the rise can be attributed to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"The numbers we're seeing right now are devastating," he said.

There were eight suspected or confirmed fatal opioid overdoses in January, according to York County Coroner Pam Gay. That number ticked up to 17 in February, she said.

In March, 24 people died of confirmed or suspected opioid overdoses, according to Gay, and there have been 14 in the first half of April.

"People in the throes of addiction are (isolating) in their homes and don't have the typical treatment outlets they would normally have," Sunday told The York Dispatch.

Intensive in-patient treatment is still a resource, he said, but the pandemic has forced other treatment avenues — including outpatient services and support organizations — to suspend services. That includes in-person meetings of Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous, according to the DA.

York County District Attorney Dave Sunday

"Think of what normal-functioning people are dealing with right now," he said, including job loss or uncertainty, its resulting financial insecurity and the stress and disenfranchisement of self-isolation and watching 24-hour news channels.

'Recipe for disaster': "You have someone who is waging a war against addiction, and now you take away their job? Their support system? It's a recipe for disaster."

Nonfatal overdoses have spiked as well, according to the DA.

"At this point the number of naloxone reversals this year are well past the entirety of last year," Sunday said. Naloxone, brand name Narcan, immediately reverses the effects of opioid overdose when administered in time, and the DA's office has supplied every police department in the county with the life-saving drug.

Although the vast majority of fatal and nonfatal overdoses in York County are caused by opioids, there has been an increase in overdoses of alcohol and other drugs as well, including cocaine and benzodiazepines, according to Sunday. "Benzos" include the anti-anxiety drugs Valium and Xanax.

York County Coroner Pam Gay

"We have a lot of people in recovery who, as a result of all the things going on around us right now, have relapsed," he said. "The concern is getting aid and support to those people."

That's why Sunday, Gay and other members of the York Opioid Collaborative — including Dr. Matt Howie, the county's chief health strategist — submitted a jointly written column to York's newspapers. Read that column here:

More:OP-ED: Responding to an epidemic in a pandemic

What can be done? The column states there have been 140 more naloxone "administrations" so far in 2020 than in all of 2019.

"The overpowering theme that seems to be prevailing right now is that social isolation is NOT a good thing in the life of those in recovery," the column states.

But there are things that can be done by those in recovery, and their loved ones, to help avoid relapses, according to the column.

"There are resources out there," Sunday said. "It's not perfect, but there are places to go for help. ... We will get through this, no question. But it may take a while."

He urged people to regularly and repeatedly reach out to their friends and family who are in recovery to offer their loved ones support, a sympathetic ear or even simply a distraction.

"One phone call can sometimes save a life," the DA said. "There's no question."

Sunday said that NA and AA chapters, as well as and, offer online support groups.

The collaborative's column notes that offers daily recovery meetings, meditation, physical activities and more to help those in recovery, and the WEconnect app helps those in recovery schedule routines to stay active.

Also, Sober Grid's mobile app gives people the ability to track their progress and receive peer support, officials said.

For emergency detox in York County, call White Deer Run at 866-769-6822. For more information, visit the Pennsylvania Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs at

Good Samaritan law: Sunday reminded people that the state's good Samaritan law remains in effect, meaning fellow drug users won't be arrested if they call 911 for help when another is overdosing.

He also warned people who have relapsed that the potency of heroin now is much stronger than even a few years ago, so they run a bigger risk of ingesting a fatal dose.

Coroner Gay has said that of the fatal heroin overdoses her office handles, most of those cases now also involve fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that's mixed with street heroin to increase its potency.

Gay said that as a trained nurse, she supports the measures being taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

"But we can't lose sight of those individuals who need that help," she said, noting many safeguards that were in place for recovering addicts have been suspended.

— Reach senior crime reporter Liz Evans Scolforo at or on Twitter at @LizScolforoYD.

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