Early in 2020, local reports and the Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health in Utah could not accurately say how many overdoses the state would have by the end of that year. However, a combination of heroin and prescription drug overdoses would likely place the number of overdose deaths similar to 2019. However, alcohol and other drugs contributed to the problems the state experienced during the pandemic. Many hospitals in the state reported increases in people coming to emergency for alcohol poisoning.
In addition, fentanyl continues to be a problem in the state. Despite overdose deaths holding steady, the percentage of those connected to fentanyl in 2020 increased significantly. In 2019, fentanyl accounted for 11% of deaths, and this jumped to 23% in 2020. Experts report that fentanyl-related deaths are in combination with another substance. The state managed to stop most local production of methamphetamine, but it is being brought in from other states. In addition, the COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult for many Utah residents to get the help they need.
The pandemic changed the way that many people got sober, and it impacted those in recovery. People began to misuse drugs and alcohol to cope with stress, job loss, financial worry, and the stress of the pandemic. Unfortunately, opioids continued to be a significant issue within the state. According to the CDC, in Utah, from November 2019 to 2020, the state saw a 7.5% increase in drug overdose-related deaths. Before the pandemic, overdose numbers had stabilized. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 complications increased the severity of the opioid crisis.
Utah Was Making Headway Against Opioids Before the Pandemic
The number of opioid-related deaths in the state began to decline before the pandemic over on a five-year trend. The state ranked in the top ten in the nation for overdose deaths over the past ten years. Utah opioid deaths outpaced deaths due to firearms falls and motor vehicle crashes. The state averages 20.3 opioid deaths per 100,000 population. The largest numbers occur in Carbon, Emery, Duchesne, Juab, Weber, Salt Lake, and Tooele Counties. In 2018, there were 437 drug overdose deaths involving opioids.
Additionally, in Utah, 80% of heroin users started with prescription opioids. Between 2000, and 2015 the state experienced a 400% increase in deaths due to prescription drugs. The COVID-19 pandemic made everything significantly worse. A large percentage of the opioid overdoses in Utah are attributed to fentanyl-laced heroin. Overdose emergency calls began to increase in May 2020. In August, emergency responders attended close to 300 suspected overdoses in a single week—a three-year high for the state. Heroin-laced fentanyl, also known as the hulk because of its green tint, is responsible for numerous overdose deaths in the state.
COVID 19 Impact on Mental and Behavioral Health in Utah
The COVID-19 pandemic had a significant impact on the mental and behavioral health in the state. Unfortunately, this led to substance abuse, suicide ideation, alcohol abuse, and mental health problems. According to a COVID mental health report for Utah, reports of suicide ideation and attempt remained stable through the pre-covid period and during the initial part of the pandemic.
The number of suicide deaths did not increase in the first 39 weeks of 2020. The number of drug overdoses reported to emergency departments remained stable through the first 50 weeks of 2020. Fatal drug overdoses remained steady through the first 39 weeks of 2020. In addition, the number of alcohol-related emergency department visits was stable in the first 50 weeks of 2020. The report also indicated there was a modest decrease in the number of prescription medications filled in the first 50 weeks of 2020. Calls to the suicide prevention crisis line increased throughout the first ten months of 2020