Between January and August, about 470 people died from accidental drug overdoses, with the potent drug fentanyl to blame for most of them. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)

Report: Drug overdose deaths in 2020 already surpass 2019’s staggering high

Drug overdose deaths in San Francisco appear to have already surpassed the staggering number of fatalities recorded last year in just the first eight months of 2020, preliminary data shows.

Some 470 people have died from accidental drug overdoses between January and August, with the potent drug fentanyl to blame for most of the fatalities, according to a report from the Medical Examiner’s Office released Friday.

The data puts San Francisco on track to see about 700 fatal overdoses by the end of the year — a sharp rise from 2019 when 441 people died from cocaine, methamphetamine or opioid overdoses.

Of the about 470 fatalities, the Medical Examiner’s Office has not made a final determination as to the cause of death in 278 cases but is investigating them as overdoses.

The office has confirmed that the other 192 were the result of an accidental overdose and closed the cases.

While many of the cases are pending, a spokesperson for the Department of Public Health said the numbers are consistent with their projections.

The numbers reflect a trend of rising overdose deaths in The City year-over-year. In 2017, there were 222 fatal overdoses compared to 259 in 2018.

Supervisor Matt Haney called the numbers a “wake up call” that should prompt City Hall to mount a more aggressive response to drug overdoses, similar to the one waged against COVID-19.

“Where is the response that matches the number of people who are dying? I don’t see it,” Haney said.

The City’s top officials have rallied behind opening up safe injection sites as a response to the increasing deaths, but the effort has continually faced setbacks.

Just Thursday, state Sen. Scott Wiener joined Mayor London Breed and Department of Public Health head Dr. Grant Colfax to announce he would reintroduce legislation to make it allowable under state law for San Francisco to open safe injection sites.

Similar bills have failed to pass, including one this year.

Colfax called the drug overdose fatalities an “emergency” on Thursday, when showing his support for safe injection sites as a way to reduce the deaths.

“We can blame the powerful opioid fentanyl for these dramatic increases,” Colfax said at the time.

Ordinarily this overdose death data would have come out sometime next year, but the preliminary reports are now a requirement under legislation that was introduced by Haney and approved by the Board of Supervisors.

In August, the Department of Public Health responded to the 2019 fatal drug overdose total that was released then by pointing to their various efforts to address the increase including an increase in distribution of overdose reversal drug Narcan.

They also pointed to the plan to create more resources through 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.

While he supports them, Haney said the push for safe injection sites “is not enough.”

If Wiener’s renewed effort wins approval in Sacramento the earliest a safe injection site could open is January 2022.

“How many people are going to be dead by then?” Haney said.

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