In L.A. County, Opioid Deaths Spiked During Stay-at-Home in One Particular Demographic

A new study found that opioid-related deaths increased among less-educated white people between March and April 2020

A new study led by researchers at the University of Southern California and the Los Angeles County Medical Examiner-Coroner’s Office found that the county’s stay-at-home orders between March and April 2020 were linked to an increase in opioid-related deaths among less-educated white residents. Meanwhile opioid-related deaths among Black, Asian, and Hispanic individuals decreased during that same time period. 

“We were surprised to find the demographics of those who suffered a fatal overdose shifted significantly as the pandemic unfolded,” researcher Jason Doctor, a senior fellow at the USC Schaeffer Center, said in a statement. His previous research on opioids led to changes in prescribing practices. 

Doctor and his colleagues analyzed data from the county coroner’s office between January 2019 and July 2020. They focused on the change in opioid-related deaths from February 2020 to the end of April—a timeframe that includes the county’s implementation of stay-at-home orders to decrease COVID cases.

In total, there were 152 opioid-related deaths from February to April 2020 in comparison to the 88 deaths during the same period in 2019, researchers said. In 95 percent of cases in 2020, illegal opioid use—either heroin or fentanyl—was a contributing cause of death. 

“The start of the pandemic occurred while we saw fentanyl infiltrating the West Coast,” said Doctor, who also co-directs the behavioral science program at the Schaeffer Center and is an associate professor at the USC Price School of Public Policy. “It was a challenging confluence of events that we are finding had devastating outcomes for some communities.”

Among those who died were mostly white males residing in areas where a smaller portion of the adult population has a bachelor’s degree, researchers said. 

On the contrary, Black, Asian, and Hispanic individuals showed a decline in opioid-related deaths during that timeframe, but faced higher rates of unemployment. These communities also made up larger percentages of COVID-related deaths.

This study comes as headlines regarding fentanyl-related deaths have dominated the news cycle. Earlier this month three people, including stand-up comedian and Comedy Parlour Live writer Fuquan Johnson, died after reportedly overdosing on fentanyl-laced cocaine in Venice. And just days prior to their deaths, Santa Clara County health leaders launched a campaign called “Expect Fentanyl” in response to a rise in fentanyl related drug overdose deaths in the Bay Area. 

Researchers said that a decrease in face-to-face treatment offered by organizations such Narcotic Anonymous immediately following the stay-at-home orders may have contributed to the spike in opioid-related deaths among white Americans. They also said that a lack of access to prescription opioids may have also resulted in illicit drug use. 

“Although there are many factors, the decline in face-to-face encounters with medical providers may have contributed to opioid-related deaths increasing,” said Jonathan Lucas, chief medical examiner-coroner for L.A. County. “If this is an underlying cause, clinical policy should focus on ways to remove these barriers so people are not cut off from important services.”

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