Pandemic, fentanyl fueling increase in fatal deaths

Karen Butcher thought that after years of struggling with drug addictions, her son, Matthew was finally in a good place.

Then the pandemic hit and on May 25, 2020, just weeks after his 31st birthday, Matthew was discovered by his girlfriend, dead from an overdose.

In 2018 and 2019, Scott County recorded 17 deaths each year due to overdose, but in 2020 some 41 people died as a result of an overdose, according to the Scott County Coroner’s Office. 

Matthew Davidson, 31, was among them.

“One day you’re a bartender, you’re serving people and having a great time at it,” Butcher said. “Then COVID hits.”

In January, restaurant Ruby Tuesday closed its doors and Matthew was suddenly out of work. An outgoing young man, Matthew thrived at the restaurant greeting customers and sharing conspiracy theories with friends, Butcher said. 

But just as Matthew was starting to look for a new job, concerns about COVID-19 began to circulate and soon restaurants and other businesses were being shut down and the job market dried up.

“He was lonely. He was depressed,” Butcher said. “He didn’t have a reason anymore to get up and keep going.”

Isolated, Matthew returned to drugs. Typically, people who are unemployed do not have the money to buy drugs, but officials say the pandemic changed everything.

“Every time a stimulus check went out, we saw a spike in deaths,” said Michael Hennigan, director of Scott County Emergency Management and assistant county coroner. “There was a direct correlation.”

University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan agreed. In an interview with National Public Radio, Mulligan said the pandemic created a situation where people had money with no place to spend it.

“Taking opioids is something that people can do by themselves, “ he said calling them, “deaths of despair.”

Just weeks after the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control issued a warning the pandemic would likely contribute to a rise in overdose deaths. One reason is if a person accidentally overdoses alone, there is no one to call for help or administer life-saving medicine like naloxone, also known as Narcan.

Although Matthew was not in a recovery group at the time of his death, the pandemic prevents such groups from meeting in person which creates more isolation for people with substance abuse disorders.

“It’s not the same as being in a place with that depth of connection that we have from in-person engagement, because connectedness is one of the drivers of recovery,” East Tennessee University professor Robert Pack told the Associated Press.

Butcher agreed.

“It is important for addicts to be around recovering addicts,” she said. “They will hold each other more accountable than most people will. They recognize the signs and the lies.”

Princeton economist Anne Case told NPR that while the pandemic may be a factor, the nationwide spread of fentanyl, a power synthetic opioid, may be the bigger problem.

“There’s this horribly dangerous, deadly drug on the market that is responsible for this explosion of drug overdoses,” Case said.

Matthew’s toxicology tests showed an unusually high amount of fentanyl in his system at the time of his death, his mother said. Fentanyl has been linked to the majority of overdose deaths in Scott County, officials said.

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