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Drug overdose deaths hit record highs during the pandemic

Posted at 6:12 PM, Apr 27, 2021

Amid the pandemic, San Luis Obispo County drug overdose deaths have hit a record high.

For the past 13 months, the pandemic has prompted stay-at-home orders, closures and less person-to-person interaction.

"When people don't have the coping skills to tolerate that, they will go towards drugs and other avoidant behaviors," said Coraline Robinson, Balance Treatment Center Program Director.

While some Central Coast treatment centers have avoided closures, some in-person treatment services had to move online.

"Even people who were active in recovery and doing well and going to meetings and going to programs, when those stopped or those went online, people lost a lot of connection," said Dr. Ken Starr, owner of Kenn Starr MD Wellness Group.

According to the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff-Coroner's Office, in 2020, there were 64 deadly overdoses. Twenty-five other deaths are still under investigation but have significant suspicion of overdose, so the total could be 89 in SLO County. In comparison, 43 people died from an overdose in 2016.

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The numbers are up in Santa Barbara County, too.

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"I think the big game-changer is fentanyl coming on the scene," said Clark Guest, Program Supervisor of San Luis Obispo County Behavioral Health Department Drug and Alcohol Services. "We're seeing it all over the place and it is being mixed with other substances."

Coroner data shows fentanyl was the biggest killer among drug overdoses in 2020 in San Luis Obispo County.

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According to new CDC research, 13% of people surveyed started using drugs during the pandemic or increased their use.

"Over the last year, the percentage of patients using fentanyl has increased probably by a factor of 10," said Dr. Dane Howalt, Aegis Treatment Center Medical Director.

Dr. Howalt says not only is it synthetic and more accessible, but it's also 50 times stronger than heroin.

"We have a state waiver so we've been able to provide increase take-home medication to our patients," said Anna Murray, Aegis Treatment Center Executive Director.

Meantime, the treatment centers we talked with said the overdose deaths may have been worse if it wasn't for Narcan, a medication used to reverse an overdose.

"We began using it in June of 2020," said Commander Caleb Davis, Paso Robles Police Department. "Since that time, we have utilized it six times successfully, and been able to just give the officers a tool to help save some lives out in the community."

The county offers free Narcan kits and training for community members that are interested.