Fatal drug overdoses soared in 2019, new report shows

Even as San Francisco has suffered setbacks in launching safe injection sites and a methamphetamine sobering center, a new report...

Even as San Francisco has suffered setbacks in launching safe injection sites and a methamphetamine sobering center, a new report Monday shows a staggering increase in the number of fatal drug overdoses last year.

A new Department of Public Health report found 441 people died from fatal drug overdoses in San Francisco in 2019 due to cocaine, methamphetamine or opioids.

Health officials also expect the trend to continue based on preliminary data from this year.

In 2017 there were 222 fatal overdoses, and in 2018 there were 259. Earlier estimates for the number of fatal overdoses in 2019 had put the number at at least 330.

Contributing to the increase is the impact of fentanyl. Overdose deaths involving fentanyl increased 169 percent in 2019 compared to 2018, from 89 deaths to 239, the report found.

“I’m devastated, saddened and furious by this, and I have been the entire time I’ve been in office,” said Supervisor Matt Haney, who represents the Tenderloin and South of Market area, where many of the fatal drug overdoses occur.

Haney has supported launching safe injection sites, which have helped reduce fatal overdoses in other countries, passed a board resolution declaring drug overdoses a public health emergency and fought for more timely reporting of the data.

Given the latest report, Haney called on The City to do more to combat the public health crisis.

“There is still far too much business as usual around this epidemic, all while more and more people are dying,” Haney said. “If we don’t change what we are doing and fast, many more people are going to continue to die.”

Mayor London Breed has supported two new efforts to address the rise in overdose deaths, but both have suffered setbacks.

In February, Breed joined Haney in the Tenderloin to announce legislation that would allow The City to permit safe injection sites to combat fatal drug overdoses, but the legislation was contingent upon Assembly Bill 362 passing to legalize them under state law.

The San Francisco Examiner reported last week that the bill had failed to pass.

Breed also planned to launch The City’s first meth drug sobering center at 180 Jones St. in the Tenderloin, but that plan got put on hold when the first coronavirus cases were diagnosed a month later in San Francisco.

Dr. Grant Colfax, head of the Department of Public Health, highlighted in a statement the number of drug overdose reversals that occurred in 2019. The department funds the distribution of the opioid overdose-reversal drug naloxone.

“As we grieve the losses of 2019, we also celebrate the compassion and decisive, life-saving action of community members, first responders and health care providers who work every day to prevent and reverse drug overdose,” Colfax said.

There were 2,604 overdose reversals reported in 2019, compared to 1,658 reversals in 2018.

The report also found a significant racial disparity in those who are dying from drug overdoses. Black males between the ages of 50 to 59 “had the highest rates of overdose mortality.”

The report also found that the opiate overdose death rate per 100,000 people was four times higher for Black people compared to other racial groups.

Dr. Phillip Coffin, director of substance use research for the Department of Public Health, said in a statement that the “data show us where we can target our efforts to make the greatest impact.”

City health officials said that programs associated with the launch of Mental Health SF, an effort by Breed and the Board of Supervisors to reform services to help those with behavioral and substance use issues, should help reduce overdose deaths. Funding for the effort is contingent upon the passage of Proposition F, a business tax reform measure, on Nov. 3.

“Mayor Breed has been focused on addressing the issue of substance use and mental health disorders, and despite the new challenges posed by COVID-19, the City is continuing to move forward plans that will make a real difference in the lives of people who are suffering,” mayoral spokesperson Andy Lynch said.

“In her budget proposal, she included funding for new street crisis response teams staffed by health clinicians as well as new resources to expand access to treatment. This issue isn’t going to be fixed overnight but the Mayor is committed to seeing it through.”


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