San Diego County health officials revealed a sharp increase in fentanyl overdose deaths Tuesday, with such fatalities rising by 126% in the first six months of 2020 over a comparable period in 2019.
The Medical Examiner’s Office released both mid-year statistics comparing the first six months of 2020 to 2019 and its 2019 annual report on Tuesday, showing an increase in the number of unexpected, non-hospital deaths.
“By releasing this level of data, we hope people can study risk factors and identify common issues and trends that could perhaps lead to discoveries and improvements in health that ultimately can save lives,” said Dr. Steven Campman, the county’s interim chief medical examiner.
Overall, the department investigated 1,751 deaths through June this year compared to 1,674 in the same months last year, a 5% increase. The Medical Examiner’s Office investigates deaths that occur by accident, homicide, suicide due to trauma or overdose or undiagnosed or sudden, unexpected natural causes.
Campman noted that relatively few COVID-19 deaths are represented in the mid-year statistics. Deaths resulting from contagious diseases that pose a risk to the public such as COVID-19 are reportable to the medical examiner but are considered natural deaths and are therefore not always investigated further by the department if the person was already under the care of a physician.
The deaths due to COVID-19 that the Medical Examiner sees are generally cases where the person had not sought any treatment for their illness or the death was unexpected. Through June the department tested 104 decedents who had potential symptoms, signs or risk factors for COVID-19 and seven came back positive for the virus, a 6.7% positivity rate.
The number of natural deaths did increase by 11% from 552 deaths in the first six months last year to 610 this year.
In the mid-year snapshot, accidental deaths made up the largest cause of cases, with 857 of 1,751 deaths from January through June. This is an increase of 2% compared to 838 in the first six months of 2019. The category covers any kind of death from accidental injury or intoxication, including injuries from falls or car crashes, accidental drug overdoses, injuries from fires or environmental exposure such as hypothermia or hyperthermia, drowning and other unintentional injuries.
Within the accidental death category, unintentional overdose deaths due to illicit drugs, prescription medication and alcohol toxicity increased by 21% from 320 deaths in the first half of 2019 to 387 the first six months of this year. Of those accidental overdoses, fentanyl-caused deaths increased by 126%, with 69 such deaths in 2019 and 156 cases this year. Most often, overdose deaths from fentanyl are traced to counterfeit pills that resemble oxycodone or alprazolam, officials said.
The report also shows a decrease of 5% in suicides, 198 this year compared to 209 in the same six months last year. Firearms were the leading method of death in 76 of the 198 deaths by suicide this year.
Homicides increased by 14% for the first half of the year, 59 compared to last year’s 52. In this category, firearms were again the leading method of deaths — 32 of the 59 deaths.
For the 2019 report, accidental deaths comprised 50% of all department investigations. Within that category, unintentional overdoses from drugs — both prescription or illegal — and alcohol were at 39%, the leading cause of death. Accidental falls followed at 33% and then traffic-related fatalities at 19%.
While more than 23,000 overall deaths occurred in San Diego County in 2019, the data in the full-year report are based on 3,347 cases investigated by the department.
–City News Service