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Health, Science, Environment

St. Louis Paramedics Respond To More Overdoses During The Coronavirus Pandemic

Dr. Katherine Austman, a fellow with the Addiction Recovery Centers of America, conducts a follow-up appointment with a patient living at an encampment for homeless people on May 28, 2020.
Eli Chen | St. Louis Public Radio
Dr. Katherine Austman, a fellow with the Addiction Recovery Centers of America, conducts a follow-up appointment with a patient living at an encampment for homeless people.

Emergency workers in St. Louis responded to an increased number of drug overdoses this spring, according to city health data. 

St. Louis EMS responders used the overdose-reversing medication Narcan 246 times in March and April, nearly twice as often as during the same period last year. 

The increased stress and isolation during the coronavirus pandemic has made some people more likely to use drugs, St. Louis Fire Department Chief Dennis Jenkerson said.

“People aren’t able to go anywhere,” Jenkerson said. “Their kids are home from school. A lot of people out of work. A lot of idle time.” 

St. Louis Fire Department receives at least 15 calls a day about an overdose, Jenkerson said. Most of the overdoses are taking place at people’s homes, where family members who don’t have Narcan may have no choice but to call 911. 

The pandemic also has disrupted the global production of prescription drug supplies, making them harder to access, said Rachel Winograd, a substance abuse researcher at University of Missouri-St. Louis. 

“Whenever you have an unpredictable, volatile drug supply, every instance of use carries a greater risk, because people can’t prepare themselves for what they’re taking in and know how to respond to,” Winograd said. 

Fentanyl supplies have become less potent, but people are combining them with other substances, she said. 

“People might try to stretch it with alcohol, which really increases the risk of an overdose as well,” Winograd said. “We’ve been hearing a lot of that.” 

Aaron Laxton, a social worker at the Assisted Recovery Centers of America, has been driving to encampments for homeless people for eight weeks to provide drug users immediate access to medical treatment. People are using more unusual methods to access drugs during the pandemic, he said. 

“We’re seeing a more raw form of fentanyl, and that can translate to people who’ve been using [drugs] for a long time overdosing very quickly,” Laxton said. 

During the pandemic, the federal government has relaxed regulations that required people to receive an in-person appointment before receiving a prescription for the opioid addiction-treatment drug Subutex.

Pharmacies are also allowing people to take home enough methadone and other addiction-treatment drugs for weeks instead of days. If those changes were permanent, that could help a lot of people, Winograd said.

Follow Eli on Twitter: @StoriesByEli

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