Nov 18, 2021 - News

Overdose deaths spiked among Black residents in Philly in 2020

Unintentional overdose deaths in Philadelphia
Data: Substance Use Philadelphia; Chart: Thomas Oide/Axios

An estimated 497 Black residents died of unintentional overdoses in Philadelphia last year, the sharpest increase of any racial group.

Driving the news: A total of 1,214 people died from unintentional overdoses in the city in 2020, a 5.5% jump over the previous year, according to the Philadelphia Public Health Department's annual report released this week.

Of note: The vast majority — nearly 86% — of all overdose deaths in the city last year involved opioids, driven by the synthetic opioid fentanyl.

Flashback: In 2018, Mayor Jim Kenney declared a disaster in the Kensington neighborhood, the epicenter of Philadelphia's opioid epidemic.

The big picture: National overdose deaths rose 28.5% over a 12-month period ending in April 2021, exceeding 100,000 for the first time, according to CDC estimates released this week.

  • Overdose deaths in Pennsylvania rose an estimated 13% during that period, to 5,410. Although, those figures are underreported because of incomplete data, the CDC noted.

Zoom in: There was a demographic shift among those who died of unintentional overdoses in Philly in 2020, the report found.

  • Overdose deaths among Black residents rose 29.4% last year, compared to 2019.
  • Meanwhile, overdoses among white people dropped nearly 10% in 2020, but the demographic still accounted for the most overdose deaths last year (511).

Between the lines: While white people have traditionally accounted for the majority of overdose deaths in the city, that trend has been reversing in recent years.

  • White residents accounted for 54% of overdose deaths in Philadelphia as recently as 2018. Last year, that number dropped to 42%.

What they're saying: The overdose crisis in the city continued unabated during the coronavirus pandemic, Cheryl Bettigole, the city's health commissioner, said in a statement.

  • "Social isolation and the increasing contamination of many street drugs with fentanyl have made overdoses tougher to prevent and treat," Bettigole said.

Prevention Point executive director José Benitez, who leads the city's only needle exchange, also cited isolation caused by COVID-19 and the increased use of fentanyl.

  • But he added that the lack of available medically-assisted treatment options, or barriers to access them, also played a role.
  • "Some of the treatment modalities should be more available to the population that we serve," Benitez said.

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