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Jackson County overdose deaths jumped in 2020

A tiny amount of fentanyl can prove deadly. Dealers are increasingly mixing fentanyl into heroin, counterfeit pain pills, meth and other drugs, helping to fuel a rise in overdose deaths. (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration photo)
Fentanyl, pandemic fuel increase in drug fatalities

Overdose deaths rose 36.7% in 2020 in Jackson County as people faced pandemic stresses and greater danger from fentanyl in the drug supply.

The local jump outpaced a 30.3% overdose death increase in Oregon and a 29.4% increase across the nation that was recently reported by the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

In Jackson County, 30 people died from overdoses in 2019. That number rose to 41 deaths in 2020, according to the Jackson County Sheriff’s Office.

So far this year, local medical examiners suspect 39 people have died of overdoses, but not all toxicology reports are back. Fifteen overdose deaths have been confirmed so far this year in the county, according to medical examiners at the sheriff’s office.

Drug overdose deaths in America reached a record high of 93,331 in 2020, while 799 people died of overdoses in Oregon last year, according to CDC estimates.

Dealers are increasingly putting fentanyl in heroin, counterfeit pain pills, methamphetamine and other drugs. Intended to treat severe pain, fentanyl can halt breathing and prove deadly in tiny quantities.

A lethal dose fits on Abraham Lincoln’s face on a penny, according to the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.

“People can’t fathom that something so small can kill you so quickly,” said Julia Pinsky, the co-founder of Max’s Mission.

She and her husband launched the nonprofit organization after they lost their 25-year-old son Max to a heroin overdose in Ashland in 2013.

Max’s Mission gives out opioid overdose reversal kits containing easy-to-use naloxone nasal spray. Opioids include prescription pain pills such as oxycodone and street drugs such as heroin.

Max’s Mission also provides test strips to check for the presence of fentanyl in drugs.

Pinsky said the rise in overdose deaths is heartbreaking.

“It’s a tragedy. It’s just awful. We hear about overdose reversals every week from the naloxone we give out. I know that it could be a lot worse. It’s still terrible,” she said.

During the pandemic, Pinsky said some people who had been in recovery from drugs for years ended up relapsing. Some people who died may have been using drugs alone, with no one around to administer naloxone and call 911.

She said it’s important for people to talk with each other about the use of all drugs, whether they are prescription or street drugs.

“It’s a very difficult subject, but talking is key. Never presume anything. You just don’t know. People can be falling apart inside,” Pinsky said.

Teenagers, who generally think they are indestructible, may be unaware of the dangers of drugs ― especially those laced with fentanyl. Teenage experimentation can prove deadly, Pinsky said.

To find out about upcoming naloxone and fentanyl test strip giveaway events, visit maxsmission.org. The website also has information about “naloxboxes” ― small boxes scattered at dozens of community sites where people can pick up an overdose reversal kit.

Jackson, Josephine and Klamath county residents who visit the website can also request an overdose reversal kit by mail.

“You really want to have that on hand. It’s just the same as having a fire extinguisher or anything else. Better to be safe than sorry,” Pinsky said.

Max’s Mission opened a new office at 1117 E. Main St., Suite 3, in Medford, and is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday for walk-ins. The organization has added a peer support specialist.

OnTrack Executive Director Sommer Wolcott said the pandemic added another layer of problems to the lives of people struggling with substance use.

An addiction treatment provider, OnTrack stayed open with in-person services during the pandemic, but some social services providers scaled back to telephone or videoconference services, Wolcott said.

She said people without cellphones, computers and internet access struggled to access services. People in poverty and those dealing with homelessness were hardest hit.

“We made a commitment early on to remain open,” Wolcott said.

OnTrack was able to space out clients and staff at some of its larger buildings and take other COVID-19 safety precautions. It has had to reduce capacity for its residential treatment beds, she said.

The addiction treatment field saw longer wait times for care and a shortage of residential and detox beds during the pandemic, Wolcott said.

As life gets back to normal, she said, social services providers, probation officers, addiction treatment providers, state agencies and others are working to do more outreach, she said.

“That in-person contact can be life or death for people who are really on the edge,” Wolcott said.

Like many businesses and organizations, addiction treatment providers are grappling with a labor shortage during the pandemic. But a worker shortage in addiction treatment and mental health care predated the pandemic and will continue after the pandemic eases, providers said.

Wolcott said Jackson Care Connect stepped in with funding so OnTrack could provide retention bonuses to its staff members and increase the hourly pay for peer support specialists, direct care support staff in residential treatment homes and certified alcohol and drug counselors.

“It was an amazing morale booster for our staff,” Wolcott said.

Higher pay has cut turnover and increased the number of applications for open positions, she said.

Wolcott said staff members have been making heroic efforts during the pandemic.

CareOregon, an umbrella organization that includes Jackson Care Connect, said it has provided more than $1.2 million to help stabilize the addiction treatment and mental health workforce in Jackson County.

Staff turnover in community mental health settings skyrocketed from an average of 20%-25% per year to 45% in 2020 and this year, CareOregon said.

Many skilled, trained workers are leaving the profession due to relatively low pay and high stress. Those departures increase the caseload on workers who remain, and makes it even harder to hire replacements, CareOregon said.

AllCare Health, another local manager of Oregon Health Plan benefits, is also investing in addiction treatment and mental health care, said Josh Balloch, vice president of government relations and health policy for AllCare.

He said the current shortage of addiction treatment and mental health workers is similar to the nation’s shortage of nurses.

Changes to help address the nursing shortage have included increasing reimbursement rates and improving the educational structure to get more nurses in the pipeline, Balloch said.

He said improving pay and boosting the number of addiction and mental health providers is a multi-year process.

“I’m hoping we can learn from the nursing shortage and make a path forward to address our mental health provider shortage,” Balloch said.

“We still severely underpay people ― from psychiatrists to peer-to-peer specialists,” he added. “It’s hard to recruit and retain people. It’s a really hard job.”

Wolcott, OnTrack’s executive director, said the pandemic triggered an infusion of money to help addiction treatment providers, but she’s worried about what happens when that temporary money runs out.

“The pandemic, as sad as it is, has put the spotlight on the need for more mental health and addiction treatment,” she said.

Wolcott said some additional money is starting to come to the community because of Measure 110, with more expected this fall.

Passed by Oregon voters in November 2020, the measure decriminalizes possession of user quantities of drugs that include heroin, meth and cocaine and diverts part of the state’s taxes on marijuana to addiction treatment.

Critics say the measure could lead to more drug use and addiction, while supporters say it stops drug users from being saddled with criminal records and puts resources into treatment.

Pinsky said Measure 110 funding is helping Max’s Mission expand services and reach more people.

While the struggle to adequately fund addiction treatment and other mental health care continues, local organizations said they’ll keep trying to help people and save lives.

“As a community, we all need to work together to wrap supports around the most vulnerable members of society and find ways to connect with people who became more isolated and hopeless during the shutdowns of the pandemic,” Wolcott said.

The community is invited to remember those who’ve been lost and learn about addiction treatment and overdose prevention during an Overdose Awareness Day event from 2-5 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 28, at Hawthorne Park in Medford.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Vickie Aldous at 541-776-4486 or valdous@rosebudmedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @VickieAldous.