November 30, 2021

CACTC: 2020 sees spike in opioid fatalities

The numbers are yet to be confirmed, but if accurate, more people died of opioid overdoses in 2020 than ever before, reports Cortland Area Communities That Care.

It recorded 21 opioid-related overdose fatalities last year in a recent report, three times as many as the seven reported in 2019, and more than 50% more than the previous peak year — 13 in 2017.

“That number of 21 overdose fatalities comes from law enforcement agencies with a big asterisk that these have yet to be confirmed,” said Travis Young, data coordinator for Cortland Area Communities that Care.

The data were collected from the Cortland County Coroner’s Office, the Village of Homer Police Department, the City of Cortland Police Department and the New York State Opioid County Reports from 2014 to 2020, the agency’s assessment reports.

But the only way Cortland Area Communities That Care can clearly track substance use is through toxicology and data from the county coroner, Young said.

“The data comes from local law enforcement, who are basing some of the conclusions on on-scene investigation and physical evidence that they find as well as interviews they conduct on scene,” Young said. “It might be reported as a heroin overdose but as toxicology comes back up to six to nine months later, it might show fentanyl or other substance use.”

When looking at opioid-related fatalities, Young noticed a general increase between 2014 and 2017 and a significant decrease in 2018 that was followed by a rise in overdoses through 2020. The appearance of heroin in fatal overdose toxicology reports decreased and plateaued in 2017, but fentanyl appearance has increased.

“There’s a clear indication that total overdoses have increased in the county through last year,” Young said.

National and state data show a relationship between increases in overdoses and increases in social distancing, Young said. But Cortland Area Communities That Care doesn’t know if the increase in overdoses is specifically related to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The data can be used to better understand opioid-related treatment and prevention in the community to better target communities and develop strategies for people accessing treatment and prevention services, Young said.

“We want to prevent death,” said Sara Watrous, project director at Cortland Area Communities That Care. “We need access to naloxone to make sure people don’t die but also want to make sure community members have access to harm reduction services, treatment and any other services they may need.”

Cortland Area Communities That Care and Healing Cortland have partnered with the Cortland County Health Department and Family Counseling Service of Cortland County to work toward communal naloxone access and training, Watrous said.