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Black Men Hit Hardest As Overdose Deaths Climb During Coronavirus Pandemic

A Level I Trauma Center at St. Louis University Hospital.
Provided by Saint Louis University Hospital
The steep rise in overdoses "is an exaggeration of what we’ve seen before,” said emergency physician Evan Schwarz. “This kind of confirms what we were worried about happening.”

The number of fatal opioid overdoses in St. Louis and St. Louis County in the first seven months of this year is 32% higher than the same period in 2019.

Access to addiction treatment has decreased during the coronavirus pandemic, and that likely contributed to an increase in fatal opioid overdoses, experts said. The rise in overdoses was highest in Black men, who saw a 56% increase in fatal overdose deaths compared with the first seven months of last year.

“We were already seeing problems as far as higher rates and having difficulties accessing treatment or having barriers to treatment,” said Dr. Evan Schwarz, an emergency room physician at Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis. “I think it just got worse in that community.”

The data from medical examiners' offices and public health agencies shows 343 people died of opioid overdoses between January and July of this year. That’s up from 260 deaths during the same period in 2019.

The preliminary data represents a “state of emergency,” said Rachel Winograd, an associate professor at University of Missouri-St. Louis who helps distribute opioid response grants for the state of Missouri.

The pandemic has created conditions in which drug users are at higher risk of relapsing, overdosing and dying, she said. More people are using drugs alone. Social distancing makes it difficult for people to go to treatment — and many are isolated, under stress or have lost their jobs.

In early spring, treatment advocates called the pandemic a “perfect storm”for people in recovery.

“It’s an exaggeration of what we’ve seen before,” Schwarz said. “This kind of confirms what we were worried about happening.”

Overdose deaths overallwere beginning to finally decrease in 2019 after years of rising, Winograd said, though there has been a continuous rise in deaths among Black people.

“Now in 2020, it’s all a wash,” she said. “Any inching toward a good direction we were doing toward some groups is definitely being undone.”

White women in St. Louis and St. Louis County were the only group that saw a decrease in fatal overdose deaths — 10% lower than last year.

The disparity is another way Black people and poor people have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, Winograd said.

“The evictions, the layoffs, the access to virtual schooling. These things are absolutely all related,” she said.

State and federal governments are focused on the response to the coronavirus, Winograd said. But they shouldn’t neglect the opioid epidemic.

“We need our leaders to ask: If not now, when? What is it going to take?” she said. “These numbers keep getting worse.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah Fentem is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.