Last week, the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene (DOHMH) announced overdose deaths reached a new record high for New York City in 2020. A stunning 2,062 people died of drug overdoses, or an average of six people per day, which is 27 percent more deaths than 2019. Both the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid crisis have widened existing inequities in health, income and wealth. Early indicators show this tragic trend has continued in 2021.
Black New Yorkers Most Impacted
Black New Yorkers had the highest rate of overdose deaths, a shift from prior years that coincided with the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2018 and 2019, Latino/a New Yorkers outpaced other groups in drug fatalities. The Bronx is among the areas most affected by the opioid epidemic nationwide, particularly high poverty neighborhoods in the South Bronx, where overdose death rates are more than twice the NYC average. Staten Island is the borough with the second highest rate of drug fatalities.
Fentanyl Floods NYC
From a supply perspective, the main culprit behind the spike in NYC overdose deaths is illicit fentanyl, a synthetic opioid manufactured in Mexico and transported into the U.S. in bulk. The potent opioid has thoroughly infiltrated New York City’s drug supply and was involved in three out of four fatal overdoses in 2020. Approximately 50 times stronger than heroin and 100 times stronger than morphine, fentanyl is a highly addictive. As little as two milligrams can be lethal.
City Enhances Service for People Who Use Drugs
Through the HealingNYC initiative, the City has committed to expanding its plan to reduce overdose deaths and addressing the opioid epidemic through several strategies:
- Raise awareness of fentanyl and the increased risk of overdose;
- Expand distribution of fentanyl test strips;
- Increase access to harm reduction services, particularly for people experiencing unsheltered homelessness who use drugs;
- Expand same-day access to buprenorphine
- Enhance services provided by NYC Health + Hospitals
Unsuspecting Drug Users at Risk
Fentanyl is frequently sold in mixtures with other substances, leaving unsuspecting drug at grave risk of overdose. Fentanyl is found in 80 percent of the heroin tested by the New York City Police Department laboratory. People who believe they are buying heroin, cocaine, methamphetamine, and even prescription Adderall and oxycodone on the street, have a higher likelihood of overdosing due to fentanyl. In 2020, fentanyl was involved in 93 percent of heroin overdoses and 77 percent of overdoses attributed to opioid painkillers.
One out of two overdose deaths in 2020 involved more than one central nervous system depressant, such as alcohol, benzodiazepines (such as Xanax), or opioids. DOHMH reported a sharp increase in cocaine-involved deaths in 2020, with a greater share containing fentanyl. More than 80 percent of cocaine overdoses involved fentanyl.
COVID-19 Exacerbates Opioid Crisis
Unfortunately, trauma resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic, which brought isolation, loss of employment and lack of access to drug treatment, contributed to this massive surge in New York City overdose deaths. It is projected that these numbers will continue to rise throughout 2021 as well.
The Office of Special Narcotics Prosecutor is continuing to work toward reducing the supply of lethal drugs infiltrating NYC and bring awareness and resources to prevent further deadly overdoses.