The latest statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention paint a familiar, grim picture — fatal overdoses are skyrocketing again.
However, while the federal data show drug deaths spiking nearly 30 percent nationally in 2020, New Hampshire’s remained steady, with state statistics so far confirming only one more of these deaths than in 2019.
Good news, right? Well, not exactly, local treatment providers say.
“What’s happening is we are saving people’s lives over and over again with nalaxone, but they are still overdosing,” said Sam Lake, executive director of the Keene Serenity Center, using the generic name for Narcan. “We are just catching them before they become [dead on arrival].”
Nationally, 2020 marked the highest single-year increase in drug deaths, according to CDC data, with more than 93,000 people believed to have died of overdoses and almost every state seeing a rise. Vermont was among them, with a 39 percent increase reported between 2019 and 2020, from 142 deaths to 198, according to data provided by the state’s health department.
The national spike has been attributed to a few factors, such as the isolation and reduced treatment options available during the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing prominence of fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine and often cut into other drugs.
The federal figures show New Hampshire as one of only two states that saw a decrease in drug deaths last year, but more updated numbers from the office of New Hampshire’s chief medical examiner chart a slight uptick.
In the Granite State — among the hardest hit amid the national opioid epidemic — the number of fatal overdoses peaked in 2017, and then dropped two years in a row in 2018 and 2019, with 471 and 415 confirmed drug deaths, respectively.
A total of 416 fatal overdoses had been confirmed for 2020 as of the latest state data, with the cause of another two deaths pending toxicology testing.
A key reason for drug deaths staying nearly level in 2020, local treatment providers say, is the expanded availability of naloxone throughout New Hampshire in recent years.
The life-saving medication temporarily reverses the effects of an opioid overdose. The effort to increase access to naloxone in New Hampshire started in 2019, with a $45.8 million, two-year grant from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
The medication is available for free at Doorway facilities — nine referral hubs statewide, including at Railroad Square in Keene, for substance-use treatment and other supports — some local recovery centers or through a doctor’s prescription, The Doorways’ website says.
“We have community partners coming to us every single week that are just getting this life-saving medicine out to the people that need it,” said Nelson Hayden, executive director of The Doorway in Keene.
And though New Hampshire lacks in certain treatment facilities — such as detox and sober-living centers — other programs, like the Doorways and needle-exchange programs, are also likely part of why the state’s drug deaths aren’t higher, according to providers.
Still, fewer fatal overdoses doesn’t mean there’s less drug use in the state, providers say.
Lake said he’s seeing an increase in methamphetamine use, both alone and laced with fentanyl. Hayden echoed this, saying it’s been especially prevalent the past few months.
Sixteen of New Hampshire’s confirmed drug deaths so far in 2021 have involved meth, according to the state data. Last year, 59 deaths involved the stimulant drug — the highest yearly number in state data dating back to 2012.
And overall, drug abuse remains steady.
Just among the Keene Serenity Center’s clients — Cheshire County residents, the majority of them from Keene — Lake said naloxone has been used to counteract an average of 40 overdoses per month this year. “Forty per month, that’s 480 per year, and that’s only our participants at Keene Serenity Center,” he said.
But, how to make drug deaths and substance abuse decline across the state is the million-dollar question. Until it’s answered, providers say there’s still work to be done.
“New Hampshire looks good when compared to the rest of the country, but it’s still scary,” Lake said. “We better not rest on our laurels.”
If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, Cheshire County residents can visit The Doorway at 24 Railroad St. in Keene Monday through Friday, from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Support is also available through the state’s 24/7 hotline at 211.Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.