Drug overdose deaths in New Jersey have leaped 20% this year amid a pandemic that advocates fear has exacerbated drug abuse and made it harder for those with addictions to secure treatment.
New Jersey saw 1,339 people die of suspected drug overdoses in the first five months of the year, 225 more than were recorded in 2019 over the same time period, according to NJ Cares, the state’s drug information dashboard. “That’s the most that we’re aware of ever occurring in New Jersey,” State Police Lt. Jason Piotrowski said last week at an online town hall hosted by the Partnership for a Drug-Free New Jersey.
With coronavirus cratering the economy and bringing unprecedented changes to day-to-day life, members of the recovery community say they worry they’ve been socked by a perfect storm of unforeseen events that have added to the despair of addiction.
Rising fatalities threaten to reverse even the small gains the state has seen in its battle with opioids, which have hit New Jersey hard, especially with the rise of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic often tied to fatal overdoses.
Last year ended on a hopeful note, when New Jersey recorded 3,021 suspected overdose deaths in total, a drop of nearly 100 from 2018 and the first time in recent years that they decreased.
For those struggling with addiction, social distancing has made it more difficult to access the support networks they need to stay sober. Those in recovery are more in danger of turning to unhealthy coping mechanisms.
Twelve-step support group meetings like Narcotics Anonymous have moved to online platforms such as Zoom, as have appointments with drug counselors, said Michele Schreffler-Perez, the vice chair of City of Angels NJ, a grassroots group headquartered in Mercer County that works with people in recovery. For some, those meetings are still productive, but for others, they lack peer-to-peer interaction that is vital, she said.
Coronavirus is making an already difficult situation worse, said Pamela Capaci, who heads Hope Sheds Light in Toms River, a nonprofit that helps people navigate the treatment system. Before the outbreak, her organization was placing 12 to 15 people a month into rehab or sober living centers. That number has now doubled — even as facilities are more likely to turn away prospective patients amid worries of COVID-19.
“We will continue these and other efforts during and after the pandemic because, as we’ve said before, this is a long-term battle,” NJ Cares said in a statement. “We must continue to attack the addiction crisis from all sides, using prevention, treatment, and enforcement to turn the tide of addiction, knowing that our perseverance will help save lives.”