COVID-19 Sends Drug Overdose Deaths Soaring in Lehigh Valley

Authored by Elliott Redwine, | Medically Reviewed by Peace Valley Recovery Editorial Staff,
Last Updated: August 18, 2021

Pennsylvania’s battle with the opioid epidemic is the most detrimental public health crisis the state has seen in decades. Year after year, the deadly effects of these drugs send shockwaves through communities statewide. The numbers of fatal overdoses have remained relatively steady since a sharp uptick in 2016. 

Experts worried about the impact COVID-19 would have on drug addiction and overdose rates. Isolation is a dangerous thing for anyone with a substance abuse problem. Whether they’re in recovery or still in active addiction, the threat remains the same. Rising stress and endless uncertainty pushed people to their limits and led many back to the bottle or their drug of choice. 

Early on in the year, people held onto hope that the stay-at-home orders and bans on large gatherings would dissipate. Unfortunately, as the year progressed the orders endured. Millions of people turned to alcohol to quell their fears and grapple with the lack of end in sight surrounding the uncertain circumstances.

Now that it’s been a year since the initial orders were set in place, news surrounding the numbers is breaking. Deaths due to overdose appear to be up in 2020, confirming everyone’s initial fears. What do these initial numbers say about the patterns of drug use in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic?

Overdose Deaths in Lehigh Valley Soar to New Highs

While some areas have yet to release official numbers, the grim results of the pandemic are finally starting to surface. Pennsylvania researchers haven’t published any reliable state data yet but some preliminary numbers are making their rounds.

The Morning Call, a Pennsylvania-based publication, reached out to county coroners in the Lehigh Valley area to gather information on drug-related deaths. According to their report, 553 people died of a drug overdose during the first six months of 2020. That’s nearly 3 people lost to a drug overdose every day for the first half of the year.

Those numbers are troublesome on their own but they’re also a 19 percent increase over the same period in 2019. The Morning Call’s data includes eight counties in the Lehigh Valley area: Berks, Bucks, Carbon, Lehigh, Monroe, Montgomery, Northampton, and Schuylkill. It paints a bleak picture for the area and hints at what official data might reveal upon its release.

opoid overdose data information

Synthetic Opioids Are at the Root of the Issue

The fatal effects of opioids are not a new occurrence. They’ve long been one of the deadliest drugs in use. However, the CDC notes that one particular type of opioid is at the heart of the drastic rise: synthetic opioids. 

Fentanyl is the main synthetic opioid that’s causing so many accidental overdoses. Over the last few years, drug manufacturers and dealers have laced heroin with fentanyl, a much more powerful opioid, to reduce their overhead. This led to thousands of users accidentally overdosing when they didn’t realize their supply was laced.

Now users look for fentanyl intentionally. The potent heroin alternative causes a much stronger high for a lower price. But it comes with greater risk and at a much higher cost, and the data reveals this haunting truth. The CDC’s December report revealed that deaths caused by synthetic opioids were up by 37 percent compared to the previous year. 

Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids are leading the problem but the data also shows that other drugs are still to blame, too. Overdose deaths that involved cocaine rose 26.5 percent over the last year, too. Overdoses caused by psychostimulants, especially methamphetamine, saw a 34.8 percent rise as well. This marks the first year that these drugs now exceed the number of cocaine-related deaths.

Waiting on State Officials for Pennsylvania Numbers

Again, Pennsylvania has yet to release any official statistics but The Morning Call noted some early numbers to fill the gap. Calls to the county coroners revealed:

  • 42 percent increase in Schuylkill County
  • 15 percent increase in Lehigh County
  • 52 percent increase in Monroe County
  • 21 percent increase in Bucks County

The Health Department explained that there’s often a 3- to a 6-month delay in receiving the numbers from each county coroner’s office. While they don’t have precise numbers to back up The Morning Call’s statistics, they did acknowledge that overdose numbers from January through July 2020 were higher than the respective month in 2019.

“The isolating nature of the pandemic has been incredibly challenging,” said Jennifer Smith, state Secretary of Drug and Alcohol Programs. “We are losing far too many Pennsylvanians.”

Opioid Overdoses Tear Families Apart

Looking at the data alone can water down the reality of drug overdose deaths. Each of these numbers and percentages represents real people, each with a family and friends who loved them. Deaths due to drug overdoses steal parents from their children; children from their parents; siblings and friends from the people who love them.

The opioid crisis is a very real problem that affects far more than the thousands who lose their lives to overdoses. Young children are forced to grow up without a mother or father, or sometimes both when opioid overdoses end their lives. Parents mourn the premature loss of their children, forced to remember them through photographs and memories. 

Fatal drug overdoses are the shocking reality for many people who abuse opioids. Whether intentional or accidental, an overdose is always a possibility when using prescription painkillers and other opioids. Encouraging a loved one to find help can be the thing that saves their life.

Finding Help for Opioid Addiction Before It’s Too Late

Despite the pressing concerns surrounding COVID-19, it’s not the only epidemic that’s facing the country. The CDC’s report stressed the importance of allowing treatment facilities to remain open with precautions in place. Help needs to be available for those trying to find their way out of the addiction cycle. 

Drug rehab programs like the one at Peace Valley Recovery provide a solution to the devastating result of opioid addiction. Learning to live life without drugs and alcohol can be difficult but seeking treatment can be the difference between life and death. Reach out to speak with an admissions specialist and learn more about the programs we offer today!

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