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St. Louis recorded hundreds of overdose deaths during the pandemic

Missouri Network for Opiate Reform and Recovery Executive Director stands beside the nonprofit's mobile outreach van. The decal on the back window represents the molecule naloxone, a chemical that can reverse and overdose.
File photo | Sarah Fentem | St. Louis Public Radio
Mo Network Executive Director Chad Sabora stands outside the organization's mobile outreach van in this 2019 photo. The number of drug-related deaths remained consistent between 2020 and 2021, which Sabora attributes to increased naloxone use.

The number of reported drug-related deaths in the St. Louis region has held steady over the past year, but public health experts say that’s not a cause for celebration.

In the first three quarters of 2021, there were 780 overdose deaths in the region, about the same as during the same period in 2020, according to the Missouri Institute of Mental Health at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. The St. Louis area was the only part of the state where overdose deaths didn’t increase.

However, almost half of Missouri overdose deaths occurred in and around St. Louis.

But the number of drug-related fatalities skyrocketed in 2020, the first year of the coronavirus pandemic, said Devin Banks, a psychology professor at UMSL who studies addiction and race equity.

“We kind of have to take into account that 2020 was a devastating year in terms of overdose,” she said. “And so sometimes what we see when there's a mass traumatic experience, like the COVID-19 pandemic, is numbers go up really significantly. And then we might see them return to baseline. But they're not returning to baseline, right? They're still really high.”

The St. Louis region accounted for 78% of all drug overdose deaths among Black people in the state, while only accounting for about 54% of Missouri's Black population, Banks said.

Two-thirds of the state’s overdose deaths involved fentanyl, a potent opioid that’s addictive and cheap to produce. Just a small amount of fentanyl can be deadly, and it’s showing up in cocaine and meth in addition to opioids.

Missouri also reported more deaths from methamphetamine, cocaine and other stimulants.

The state's tally of overdose deaths may not reveal the full extent of the crisis, as many drug-related deaths go unreported, said Chad Sabora, executive director of Mo Network, an organization that sends workers onto city streets to provide services to drug users and offers addiction counseling.

Sabora said the overdose-reversal drug naloxone and efforts to reduce the stigma of addiction have saved countless lives in St. Louis.

“We’ve literally flooded the streets,” he said. “ I mean, if it wasn't for that, I couldn't even imagine what our mortality rate would be.”

Sabora said the state should allow clean syringe service programs, which offer drug users safe drug supplies. The programs keep people from contracting infectious diseases like hepatitis and HIV and also serve as a way to funnel people into treatment and distribute naloxone, he said.

“There's no better way to get people into treatment, and save their lives,” he said. “And yet we're completely blocked from providing that service by archaic laws based like Puritan morality belief that has infected the whole country.”

A bill in the Missouri legislature would decriminalize such programs.

 Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

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