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Opioid deaths in Oregon spiked 70% last spring

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) said more data is needed to say how much the COVID-19 pandemic contributed to opioid deaths.
Credit: Drew Angerer
Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, are displayed before a press conference regarding a major drug bust, at the office of the New York Attorney General, September 23, 2016 in New York City. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

PORTLAND, Ore — Opioid deaths in Oregon were up nearly 70% in April and May compared to the same time in 2019, the state's health agency announced Thursday.

The Oregon Health Authority (OHA) said analysis showed illicit fentanyl and methamphetamine use was the driver for the "alarming spike" in opioid deaths last spring.

There also was a nearly 8% increase in the number of overdose deaths during the first quarter of 2020 compared to the same period in 2019.

The preliminary data come from the State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS), which includes various data from medical examiners and death certificates.

In addition, analysis found that opioid deaths rose by 15% from March to April and 28% from April to May 2020. Opioid-involved deaths accounted for almost 73% of total overdose deaths in May 2020.

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Of opioid-involved deaths, data shows fentanyl and heroin continue to be the drugs most frequently involved, and fentanyl-involved deaths accounted for almost 40% of total overdose deaths in May 2020. 

The analysis also found amphetamine-involved deaths accounted for more than 40% of all overdose deaths in May 2020.

OHA said it's unclear what effect the COVID-19 pandemic may have had on opioid misuse.

“Until more data become available, it is premature to say how much of the spike in overdose deaths is attributable to the COVID-19 pandemic,” said Tom Jeanne, M.D., MPH, deputy state health officer and deputy state epidemiologist at the Public Health Division.

Jeanne added that factors of the pandemic's effects on daily life including work, school and social isolation may increase feelings of anxiety and depression, which can lead to substance abuse. 

Health officials recommended that people seeking to quit opioids talk to their healthcare provider or visit the OHA website for a list of resources. 

Oregon law allows lay people to carry and administer naloxone, a medication that can be used to reverse an opioid overdose, on other people.

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