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A 'Flood of People' Seek Help As Drug Overdose Deaths Spike In Kansas And Missouri

Carlos Moreno
KCUR 89.3

Long seen as a crisis afflicting rural communities, the opioid epidemic in recent years has surged in Black communities.

Drug overdose deaths in Kansas spiked by nearly 24% last year while overdose deaths in Missouri increased by nearly 20%, according to newly released government figures.

Nationwide, a record high of more than 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2020, up nearly 30 percent over the roughly 72,000 overdose deaths in 2019.

The preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows overdose deaths increased in every state but two, with Vermont suffering the biggest percentage increase, nearly 58%, followed by Kentucky, at nearly 54%.

In large part driven by synthetic opioids like fentanyl, overdose deaths surged after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Opioids accounted for about 75% of all overdose deaths in the early months of the pandemic.

The role of the pandemic

Health experts say the pandemic was a major factor in the surge. Many treatment programs closed during the pandemic, even as job losses increased, lockdown measures took effect and more people experienced a greater sense of social isolation and dislocation.

“What we do know is that COVID has created an absolute behavioral health crisis,” said Emily Hage, president and CEO of First Call, a Kansas City-based nonprofit that addresses substance use disorders. “We knew that there was an opioid crisis happening and COVID just has compounded that.”

Opioid manufacturers have been the targets of lawsuits by local and state governments seeking billions of dollars in damages. Last week, 15 states reached a settlement with Purdue Pharma, the maker of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, that calls for the company to pay at least $4.5 billion to resolve thousands of claims. (Missouri and Kansas are not among the 15 states.)

Opioids such as the prescription medications hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl are widely used to alleviate pain. But their frequent misuse has led to an epidemic of overdoses and deaths. Excluding last year, more than 841,000 people have died in the U.S. since 1999 from drug overdoses, according to the CDC.

Growing urban impact

Long seen as a crisis afflicting rural communities, the opioid epidemic in recent years has surged in Black communities and other communities of color. Although the CDC did not provide a demographic breakdown, the Associated Press reported last month that in St. Louis, overdose deaths among Black residents increased at three times the rate of white residents, soaring more than 33%.

The situation in Kansas City appears to be similarly dire. Imani House, an adult substance abuse treatment center run by Swope Health Services, has been forced to add a waiting list because of surging demand.

“We had to cap the number of people who can come in and be treated because there was such a flood of people coming that we had to create a wait list, which is not something we wanted to do,” said Darla Belflower, program manager of substance use disorder services at Imani House.

Belflower said the growing number of overdoses and overdose deaths among African Americans was in part due to the pandemic, which closed people off from their communities, their connections and their support networks.

“I’ve been very open that I am a person in long-term recovery and just within my recovery community in the last year, we have lost at least four individuals to overdoses,” Belflower said.

Also contributing to the growing numbers, she said, has been the increasing popularity of fentanyl, which is easily mixed with heroin and stimulants like methamphetamine.

“As recently as three years ago, the opioid epidemic was primarily considered to be a white epidemic,” Belflower said. “And what’s happening now is that it’s moving from east to west and moving into the bigger cities.”

President Biden this week appointed Rahul Gupta as drug czar to oversee the Office of National Drug Control Policy and lead the response to the opioid epidemic. Gupta, a primary care doctor, previously served as West Virginia’s health commissioner. His appointment must be confirmed by the Senate.

Copyright 2021 KCUR 89.3. To see more, visit KCUR 89.3.

Dan Margolies is editor in charge of health news at KCUR, the public radio station in Kansas City. Dan joined KCUR in April 2014. In a long and varied journalism career, he has worked as a reporter for the Kansas City Business Journal, The Kansas City Star and Reuters. In a previous life, he was a lawyer. He has also worked as a media insurance underwriter and project development director for a video production firm.