In shadow of pandemic, SLO County drug overdose deaths hit record high

Jan 6, 2021

In a year when the coronavirus has racked up an immense death toll, health officials say there is an overlap with another staggering figure—Americans dying from overdose in record numbers throughout the country, and that trend is being seen in San Luis Obispo County.

For the last ten months, the pandemic has led to shelter-at-home orders, closures, and less direct contact between people. Frank Warren with SLO County Behavioral Health said this has formed a perfected storm for individuals suffering from addiction. 

“A shelter-in-place order comes and suddenly people can't go out and get the human interaction they would get on a daily basis," Warren said. "For an addict, or someone who is just starting treatment, those connections are really important.”

While services for treatment have always been available, due to the pandemic, in-person talk therapy sessions were swapped for video conferencing, and in-person group sessions became less available. 

“That’s a really important part of treatment and recovery," Warren said. " Zoom and other online services can create some of that, but we have to recognize that even our numbers started to go down for people even walking through the door. Part of treatment and recovery is social.”

According to SLO County Sheriff-Coroner’s Office records, in 2020 there were at least 57 fatal overdoses. 19 other deaths are still under investigation, but have a significant suspicion of overdose toxicity, so the total could be 76 people in SLO County.

For comparison, in 2019, 53 people died from an overdose. Warren said these deaths spanned from teens to people in retirement age. 

“These are primarily fentanyl and opioid overdoses, methamphetamine," Warren said. "There is a term called poly drug which means there were multiple drugs found in a person's system."

Warren believes overdose deaths could have been worse if local law enforcement and first responders did not carry Narcan, a medication designed to reverse an overdose. But he thinks now, more focus needs to be on making lower-level treatment available.

“Addiction is in every one of our families, mental illness is in every one of our families," Warren said. "We’ve gone far too long where that's been ‘their problem’ but when you start losing your community members, your neighbors, whether you knew them or not, you should care.”