Opiate overdoses spike in Black Philadelphians, but drop in white residents since COVID-19

While it has been reported that opioid overdose deaths have increased during the COVID-19 pandemic, a new study looking at data in Philadelphia showed that this hardship has been overwhelmingly suffered by Black individuals. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine analyzed the period of time after the city’s stay-at-home order was announced in 2020 and showed that, compared to the year before, the number of fatal overdoses suffered by Black individuals spiked by more than 50%. At the same time, the rate for white individuals actually fell by 31% over the same period. This research was published in JAMA Network Open.

Three medical professionals in full PPE wheel a gurney with a patient towards elevator doors.

“Philadelphia has been devastated by the opioid crisis, which was experienced previously more acutely in the white community,” says the study’s lead co-author, Utsha Khatri, a fellow in the National Clinician Scholars Program at Penn and an Emergency Medicine physician. “Recently, however, we tracked a disturbing trend toward higher rates of fatal and non-fatal overdoses among Black Philadelphia residents. These differential trends in opioid overdose suggest that racial inequities were exacerbated by the pandemic.”

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the Philadelphia Fire Department published opioid overdose trends by race in 2020 after there were indications of a potential trend of increased overdose among Black Philadelphians. Senior author Eugenia South, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and the vice chair for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, took note of this and decided that it warranted a formal investigation to see whether these rates were by chance alone or actually statistically distinct from prior trends.

“The results of this study are sobering,” South says. “The Black community has been hit incredibly hard since the start of the pandemic—both with the illness itself and the social and economic fallout, which includes increased gun violence, job loss, and closure of small businesses. We believe the increase in fatal and nonfatal opioid overdoses is a symptom of that.”

This story is by Frank Otto. Read more at Penn Medicine News.