More people in Washington state died of drug overdoses in 2020 than any year in at least the past decade, with the surge likely driven by the effects of the pandemic, state health officials said.
The spike mirrors national trends. In December the Centers for Disease Control had reported more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S. in the 12 months ending in May 2020 — the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” CDC Director Robert Redfield said at the time.
The Seattle Times reported that fatal drug overdoses in Washington state increased more than 30% last year compared to 2019, according to the data from the state Health Department. The increase was more than twice as large as any in the past decade.
Deadly opioid overdoses — from prescription painkillers, fentanyl and other similar substances — increased by nearly 40%, according to the data. That represented more than triple the rate of any other increase in the past decade.
The Washington Department of Health was still analyzing the preliminary data and causes of death in specific cases and health officials expect the number of overdose deaths to grow even higher.
“It is reasonable to believe the psychological, social and economic impacts of COVID-19 led to an increase in drug use,” said Kristen Maki, a spokesperson for the department.
In 2020 the health department reported 1,649 drug overdose deaths, compared with 1,259 the previous year. Many more people reached out for help with drug or alcohol problems during 2020.
Calls to the Washington Recovery Help Line, a toll-free phone line for people seeking help or treatment for substance abuse, increased more than 90% in 2020 compared to 2019, according to data from the program, which is primarily funded by the state.
Troy Seibert, opioid use disorder manager for the recovery help line, said the disruptions and traumas over the past year — job losses, isolation, illness, death — contributed to the increases.
“Any time we see folks in a state of despair, substance use is going to rise,” Seibert said.