A grim tally released today by the medical examiner pegged the number of San Francisco overdose deaths at more than 450 from January through August, 2020. That exceeds the total recorded in all of 2019, which was 441. And this year’s data is preliminary, meaning these numbers only figure to grow.
In 2018, the city recorded 259 overdose deaths; 222 were recorded in 2017.
San Francisco is now on pace to suffer 675+ overdose deaths in 2020. And, again, this is only the preliminary data.
Fentanyl accounts for the lion’s share of this year’s 450 deaths, at 300+ (for reasons unknown, the medical examiner’s report, embedded below, does not include the actual numbers of deaths by overdose, instead providing rough figures on a graph).
It was only on Aug. 31 that the city released the final 2019 tally. The fentanyl-driven surge in deaths was a foreboding sign of what was to come in 2020.
“San Francisco has many innovative ways to care for people who use drugs,” said the Health Department’s Dr. Phillip Coffin in August. “But no American city has been able to withstand the arrival of fentanyl without increases like these.”
Among accidental drug overdose cases through the first eight months of 2020, 70 percent of those treated had fixed addresses. That tracks with data recorded in past years, when users — who may have once used drugs in groups, and out-of-doors — instead died alone, indoors.
A 2003 academic paper found that 68 percent of fatal heroin overdoses were among people who were using alone. The pandemic has only exacerbated this trend, as more and more people are isolated.
Fentanyl, however, is more unpredictable and powerful than heroin. And, adds Kristen Marshall, the manager of the DOPE project, which coordinates the city’s overdose response, it’s no shock that more people are using drugs during a time when so many Americans are suffering and feeling hopeless.
“These numbers are not a surprise to us,” Marshall says. The isolation required by Covid-19, she notes, is antithetical to how one would approach cutting down on overdose deaths. The onset of both Covid and fentanyl exacerbated “the root causes of overdoses: Homelessness, poverty, and wildly disparate health scenarios people of color are facing.”
The DOPE project disseminates the drug Narcan, which can revive someone suffering from a drug overdose. Marshall said in the vicinity of 1,800 people have been revived in San Francisco in 2020.
Supervisor Matt Haney, who oversees SoMa and the Tenderloin, said the city needs a Covid-like mobilization to take on a health crisis that has grown exponentially worse from year to year.
“I am angry. The city has known about this for years. It has gotten dramatically worse this year. We need urgency in our response,” Haney says. “We need massive street outreach. There should be more Narcan. There should be a clear and targeted law-enforcement strategy to stop the most deadly drugs. People should be able to easily access treatment. But the response this year has been more of the same. To save lives, we need a response that matches the crisis.”
“In my district, there are people who openly shoot up, all day and every day. Nobody intervenes. Nobody stops the drug-dealers, who are selling drugs that are deadlier than ever,” Haney continued. “It’s a complete free-for-all. People are left out there doing what they’re doing until they die.”
Data obtained by the Chronicle indicates that more than twice as many homeless San Franciscans have died in 2020 than in the year prior. Nationwide, drug overdose deaths are surging to record levels in this year.