Not just a 'white problem': Blacks and Latinos see largest spike in overdose deaths during COVID-19 pandemic, study finds

Health experts expected the pandemic to exacerbate addiction and substance abuse in the U.S., but a recent study found Black and Latino communities were disproportionately affected by such disorders.

Researchers from the University of California, Los Angeles, examined data from emergency medical service calls and compared overdose deaths in 2020 with deaths in prior years.

They found overdose deaths seen by EMS workers increased by 42% in the U.S. in 2020 compared with 2018-2019, according to the study published Wednesday in the peer-reviewed journal JAMA Psychiatry.

The largest spikes were seen among Blacks and Latinos, with 50.3% and 49.7% increases in overdose deaths during the pandemic, respectively.

“What’s really novel in this study is that we have the first national evidence that Black and Latinx communities were disproportionately affected by the pandemic,” said study lead author Joseph Friedman, a researcher and student at UCLA. “This has a lot of implications of how the country likes to handle the overdose crisis.”

Researchers also broke down the data by region and found that while the Northeast had the most overdose deaths in the nation, as in previous years, states along the Pacific Coast saw the largest increase during the pandemic – more than 63%.

The study tracks with a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report published in February that looked at emergency department visits from Dec. 30, 2018, to Oct. 10, 2020, and found weekly counts of all drug overdoses were up to 45% higher in 2020 than in 2019.

However, the data was not broken down by race and ethnicity, and it didn’t capture the entire pandemic, Friedman said. This lag in data availability can be harmful to vulnerable communities that need extra attention.

“There’s a common portrayal of overdoses being a ‘white problem,’” he said. “It’s really not true and it’s harmful because of awareness and also where overdose resources are spent.”

The study doesn’t specify the drug used at the time of overdose, because it can take months and sometimes years to collect such information from medical examiner data, but health experts speculate fentanyl may be the driving force behind overdose deaths.

Dr. Jeanmarie Perrone, director of the center for addiction medicine and policy at the University of Pennsylvania’s Perelman School of Medicine, said she has seen an increase in overdose deaths in Black and Latino communities in Philadelphia with the increasing presence of fentanyl.

It’s not just in heroin, she said. Fentanyl also is appearing in drugs that don’t normally have as high an overdose rate, such as cocaine and methamphetamines. The potent drug also can be pressed into pills made to look like benzodiazepines or other opioids and sold on the street.

“People who are using drugs intravenously are more aware of the high risk,” she said. “It’s affecting (Black and Latino) communities differently because they are not as prepared.”

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To combat the trend, Perrone and her team have increased prevention efforts with naloxone training and education. Naloxone is a medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose.

Philadelphians also have access to walk-in treatment options where a patient can be given their first dose of methadone or Suboxone at the emergency department, instead of a clinic. Providers also encourage people to use special strips that test their drugs for hidden fentanyl.

But interventions and resources do little good if there’s no data to identify communities that need them the most.  

“There’s a lot of opportunities for education for people. … There’s a lack of understanding in many communities that there is really good treatment,” Perrone said. “The surveillance aspect of this is really important and (this study) emphasizes the need for better real-time data.”

Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT. 

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