PORTLAND, Ore. — Over a period of two months this spring, Oregon health officials noted an "alarming" spike in overdose deaths in the state — many involving the use of both methamphetamine and the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.
Comparing data from April and May of this year to the same period in 2019, analysts at the Oregon Health Authority's public health division noted a 70 percent increase in the number of overdose deaths. Those deaths ramped up over a period of several months, the analysts found — increasing 15 percent between March and April, then 28 percent from April to May.
During the entire first quarter of 2020, there was an overall increase of nearly 8 percent in the number of overdose deaths compared to 2019. This preliminary data came from the State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS), which combines information from medical examiners and death certificates.
"Of opioid-involved deaths, the data show, fentanyl and heroin continue to be the drugs most frequently involved, and fentanyl-involved deaths accounted for almost 40 percent of total overdose deaths in May 2020," OHA said.
But methamphetamine use played a roughly equal role. Amphetamines were also associated with 40 percent of all overdose deaths in May.
A study conducted by the University of Maryland in 2019 examined illegal drug use in Oregon, focusing on regional "hot spots" in Eugene and Roseburg. The report described frequent use of both methamphetamine and opioids, with users often alternating between the two in some combination — some describing their perception of meth as a "safer" alternative to heroin, or a way to help reduce opioid use.
Though the dangers of the drugs involved have been self-evident for some time, OHA admitted that it does not fully understand how the stresses of the COVID-19 pandemic may have played a role in the spike this year.
“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 Dr. Tom Jeanne, deputy state health officer and deputy state epidemiologist at the Public Health Division. “However, the realization that we will be dealing with COVID-19 for some time, and other stressors related to jobs, school and social isolation, may increase feelings of anxiety and depression, and that can lead to a harmful level of alcohol or other drug use.”
OHA stressed in its statement that opioid use disorder can be successfully treated, and there are resources at the state and local level to find help. The agency also encouraged carrying naloxone, the medication that can reverse an opioid overdose if caught in time.
Oregon-based nonprofit Lines for Life and OHA recently launched the "Safe + Strong Helpline" at 1-800-923-4357 (800-923-HELP). The line offers free, 24-7 emotional support and resource referral to anyone who needs it — not only those experiencing a mental health crisis.
"The Safe + Strong Helpline is a response to needs for emotional support around disasters like COVID-19 and wildfires and was funded by the CARES Act," OHA said. "Callers are routed to a counselor who can provide emotional support, mental health triage, drug and alcohol counseling, crisis counseling or just connection."
EDIT: An earlier version of this story referenced OHA's statements regarding a 70 percent increase in "opioid overdose deaths." On October 29, the agency issued a corrected statement, clarifying that the increase included total drug overdose deaths, not just those involving opioids.