California Drug Overdoses During COVID-19

Last updated: 12 August 2022

In December 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020. Nationally, drug overdoses deaths rose by 30% in 2020, hitting the highest number ever recorded. The pandemic had a significant impact on drug overdose deaths in California. In 2020, the pandemic was running parallel to the opioid public health crisis in California. Individuals and families were spending more time at home and struggling with the stress of the pandemic and economic uncertainty. State and local governments enacted harsh lockdown measures, and people addicted to drugs were left to fend for themselves. The number of overdose deaths increased in 2020 due to the compounding effects of the pandemic and the widespread availability of fentanyl. In California, all drug-related deaths increased by 20% over 12 months.


Additionally, fentanyl accounted for 36% of those overdosed deaths, an increase of 89% from the prior year. Psychostimulant deaths increased by 21%, and cocaine-related deaths increased by 49%. Numerous reports indicated that increased isolation has resulted in many people using substances alone. In addition, many drug users are purchasing from new dealers. The disruption of daily activities also played a significant role in the overdose spikes resulting from COVID-19. In addition, experts noted that job loss, school closings, clinic closures, reduced clinic hours, and inexperience with telehealth affected the stability of hundreds of thousands in treatment and recovery.

Drug Overdoses in California are Linked to Multiple Substances

Fentanyl has been connected to thousands of drug overdoses nationally and accounted for one-third of overdose deaths in California from July 2019 to July 2020. Since 2018, the number of fentanyl overdose deaths has nearly quadrupled. Fentanyl overdose is also connected to drugs like heroin, methamphetamine, and cocaine, often laced with fentanyl. In addition, psychostimulants and cocaine are linked to numerous overdose deaths every year. MDMA, dextroamphetamine, levoamphetamine, and cocaine-related deaths increased in California by 21% and 49%, respectively, from July 2019 to July 2020.

Approximately 45% of drug overdose deaths involved opioids in California in 2018—more than 2,400 deaths. The most significant increase in opioid deaths involved synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl. From 2017 to 2018, there was a 60% increase, and this trend continued into 2020, made worse by the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of deaths involving heroin also increased. Overall, overdose deaths in California jumped to 9,538 in 2020, up from 6,538 in 2019. Opioids were the direct cause of the increase in overdose deaths across the state.

All Regions and Demographics in California Impacted by Overdose Deaths Amid COVD-19

Los Angeles County has a population of around ten million people and was devastated by the COVID-19 pandemic, government restrictions, and lockdowns. Information gathered from the Department of Public Health, and the Division of Substance Abuse Prevention and Control reported a 48% increase in accidental drug overdose deaths in Los Angeles County. These deaths occurred within the first five months of the pandemic. The highest accidental drug overdose death rate per 100,000 population was associated with methamphetamine and fentanyl.

This is a picture showing a graph of the number of fentanyl and methamphetamine overdose deaths by year in California

The report indicated that all data categories of gender, age groups, race, ethnicity, drug types, and poverty areas demonstrated an increase in accidental drug overdose deaths during the early months of the pandemic. Approximately 78% of drug overdose deaths occurred among males. Within Los Angeles County, during the first five months of the pandemic, overdose deaths increased 196.1% among Asians, 55.6% among Blacks, 48.1% among Latinx, and 41.7% among Whites. Individuals aged 25 to 34 had the highest accidental drug overdose death rate per 100,000 population.

Drug overdose deaths in the city of San Francisco have been a growing public health crisis. In the 8.5 months before and after the shelter in place orders in the city, 365 and 537 people experienced fatal overdoses, respectively, totaling over 900 deaths. After the shelter-in-place order, the number of overdose deaths increased by 50%. Local news in the city reported that overdose deaths outpaced COVID-19 deaths. Nearly three times as many people died from an accidental drug overdose in San Francisco in 2020 than from the coronavirus. Most overrode deaths occurred among white and Latinx men aged 55 to 64. San Francisco health officials stated the spike in overdose deaths occurred because of fentanyl and the isolation and despair created by the pandemic.

Additionally, the opioid-involved overdose death rate for Latinos in California nearly doubled between 2016 and 2019. Prescription opioids have contributed to the majority of Latino overdose deaths in California since 2006. Within San Diego, it is estimated that three people die daily from opioid and other drug overdoses. In the summer of 2020, overdose deaths were more than 50% higher than in February and March. Throughout the entire pandemic, there has been an increase in the number of opioid-related drug overdose deaths in California.

Fentanyl, California, and COVID-19

Fentanyl is a significant threat in the state of California. In 2019, California had more fentanyl seized than any other state. In the first six months of 2020, California, New York, and Texas accounted for 39% of the bulk cash seized at the border. The border restrictions brought on by the pandemic increased the difficulty of transporting loads of bulk currency from the United States to Mexico. In addition, California had the second-largest amount of cocaine seized in 2019. The state of California also leads the US in methamphetamine conversion labs.

Additionally, in 2019, 26% of illicit fentanyl tablets contained a potentially lethal dose of fentanyl. Overall, opioids remain at epidemic levels within the state. Over the past five years, the number of fentanyl-related deaths in California jumped more than 2,100 percent. In San Francisco, drug users are dying at a rate of nearly two a day. In addition, the city of San Diego has been hard hit, and homeless populations across the state are significantly impacted. Health officials are seeing individuals as young as 13 overdose on counterfeit opioid pills available for home delivery over the internet.

COVID-19 and stay-at-home orders are directly responsible for the increase in overdose deaths. At home was where isolation, economic disruption, and limited access to treatment fueled experimentation. Experimenting with drugs and using drugs alone led to addiction, relapse, and death. Every state was able to request blanket exceptions for all stable patients in an Opioid Treatment Program to receive 28 days of take-home doses of their opioid medication. Unfortunately, many people turned to illegal drugs where non-pharmaceutical grade fentanyl was the culprit.


Marcel Gemme, DATS

Marcel Gemme, DATS


on August 12, 2022

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Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with addiction for over 19 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. During his 5 years as an intake counselor, he helped many addicts get the treatment they needed. He also dealt with the families and friends of those people; he saw first-hand how much strain addiction puts on a family and how it can tear relationships apart. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise in the United States and Canada, he decided to use the Internet as a way to educate and help many more people in both those countries. This was 15 years ago. Since then, Marcel has built two of the largest websites in the U.S. and Canada which reach and help millions of people each year. He is an author and a leader in the field of drug and alcohol addiction. His main focus is threefold: education, prevention and rehabilitation. To this day, he still strives to be at the forefront of technology in order to help more and more people. He is a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist graduate with Honours of Stratford Career Institute. Marcel has also received a certificate from Harvard for completing a course entitled The Opioid Crisis in America and a certificate from The University of Adelaide for completing a course entitled AddictionX: Managing Addiction: A Framework for Succesful Treatment.