Drug overdoses skyrocket in state amid COVID

SEATTLE — More people in Washington state died of drug overdoses in 2020 than any other year in at least the past decade, according to preliminary data from the state Department of Health.

The effects of the coronavirus pandemic likely led to a surge in drug use, the department said.

The Seattle Times reported fatal drug overdoses increased more than 30 percent last year compared with 2019, according to the data, an increase more than twice as large as any other year in the past decade.

Deadly opioid overdoses — from prescription painkillers, heroin, fentanyl and other similar substances — increased even faster, by nearly 40 percent, according to the data. That represented more than triple the rate of any other increase in the past decade.

The Department of Health is still analyzing the preliminary data and causes of death in specific cases. State 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 of Health.

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, according to state data.

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 percent in 2020 compared with 2019, according to data from the program, which is primarily funded by the state.

Troy Seibert, the 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. “COVID has certainly had a huge impact on the increased rise in substance use overall.”

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