Accidental drug overdose deaths spiked 55% in 2020, state says

By: - October 12, 2021 6:00 am
Pills on pharmacy shelf

Opioid deaths had been declining for the past several years. Many point to the pandemic and its many stresses as the reason for the reversal, which has happened nationwide but has been more pronounced in Nevada. (Mint Images/Getty Images)

The opioid epidemic continues to impact Nevada, underscoring the need for an updated state response that will be funded by settlement money from the pharmaceutical companies that started the public health crisis.

Accidental drug overdose deaths spiked 55% last year, according to the Nevada State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS).

In 2019, 510 people in Nevada died from accidental drug overdoses.

In 2020, 788 died.

People 25 and under accounted for much of that increase. Nearly triple the amount of young people overdosed last year compared to the prior year — from 38 in 2019, to 106 in 2020.

Opioid overdose deaths in 2020 eclipsed the state’s previous peak in 2011, according to a February 2021 report by the Department of Health and Human Services. Opioid deaths had been declining for the past several years. Many point to the pandemic and its many stresses as the reason for the reversal, which has happened nationwide but has been more pronounced in Nevada.

The preliminary outlook for this calendar year isn’t promising.

Between January and May 2021, there were 92 fentanyl-related overdose deaths among Clark County residents, according to an August announcement from the Southern Nevada Health District. That represented a 39% increase over the same period of time in 2020.

That five-month 2021 total was also higher than the 2019 year total of 72 deaths.

SNHD was prompted to report that increase after the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department reported five suspected fentanyl-related overdose deaths during a 24-hour period.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid often manufactured illegally. It is described as 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. Health officials say one contributing factor of the increase in fatal overdoses is that fentanyl is being pressed into counterfeit pills and sold on the street as Percocet, Xanax or Oxycodone.

Clark County’s fentanyl-related overdose deaths included 17-year-old Mia Gugino and at least three other children. The teenager’s internet search history suggests she believed she was taking MDMA, the party drug known as ecstasy, which she also had in her system when she died.

Last month, the Drug Enforcement Administration issued a public safety announcement saying it was seizing fake prescription pills, often unknowingly laced with fentanyl, at record rates.

Updating the state response

Nevada has been fighting the opioid crisis for years and is set to update its approach this year. Previous efforts have included mandatory prescriber education, improving data collection between health agencies and law enforcement and improving access to opioid treatment clinics.

During the 2021 Legislative Session, lawmakers created a Nevada Fund for a Resilient Nevada to house the proceeds of state litigation against opioid manufacturers and related businesses. The fund is similar to a previous state fund that housed proceeds from a massive settlement with tobacco companies in the 1990s.

In March, Nevada agreed to a $45 million settlement with McKinsey & Company, a global consulting firm that for more than a decade advised numerous opioid manufacturers on how to maximize profits from opioids, which brought on and furthered the nationwide health crisis. That settlement came after Nevada rejected an earlier multistate settlement that would have netted the state $7 million.

Nevada also anticipates receiving an estimated $50 million as part of a bankruptcy settlement plan for Purdue Pharma, the opioid manufacturer and maker of Oxycontin.

Additional opioid settlement money is expected in future years.

“We will continue to pursue litigation in our courts to hold other opioid defendants accountable for their actions and to receive what Nevada needs to fight the devastating effect of opioids on our state and its residents,” said Attorney General Aaron Ford in a September statement announcing the Purdue Pharma settlement.

Nevada this year became one of a handful of states to reject a $26 billion multistate settlement with drugmakers Johnson & Johnson and three distribution companies. Nevada’s share of that settlement would have been $282 million over 18 years. Instead, it will seek its own settlement with the companies.

At the time, Ford said Nevada needs a settlement that “more adequately addresses the devastation felt by every Nevadan who has experienced the tragedy of the opioid crisis.”

The 2021 Legislature also created an Advisory Committee for a Resilient Nevada, which is tasked with creating a state needs assessment and establishing priority areas to allocate the money received from the opioid settlements. That 17-member advisory committee, whose members are appointed by the director of DHHS, met for the first time last week.

Lawmakers this year also created a complementary Substance Use Response Working Group, housed within the Nevada Attorney General’s Office. The working group, which is appointed by the attorney general, will “study evidence-based strategies in prevention and intervention, and evaluate the effect of substance use on Nevada’s criminal justice system, educational institutions, and the economy,” according to a June announcement.

The Attorney General’s office did not respond to the Current’s request for an update on the working group.

Health officials recommend people at risk of an overdose, as well as people in close contact with those at risk, carry the opioid overdose antidote Naloxene. Better known by the brand name Narcan, Naloxene is available for free and without a prescription across the state.

Other resources:

Crisis Support Services of Nevada
Call: 1-800-273-8255
Text: CARE to 839863

NAMI Peer Support Warm Line
775-241-4212

National Drug Helpline
1-844-289-0879

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April Corbin Girnus
April Corbin Girnus

April Corbin Girnus is an award-winning journalist with a decade of media experience. She has been a beat writer at Las Vegas Sun, a staff writer at LEO Weekly, web editor of Las Vegas Weekly and a blogger documenting North American bike share systems’ efforts to increase ridership in underserved communities. An occasional adjunct journalism professor, April steadfastly rejects the notion that journalism is a worthless major. Amid the Great Recession, she earned a B.A. in journalism from the University of Nevada Las Vegas, where she served as editor-in-chief of the student newspaper. She later earned an M.A. in media studies and a graduate certificate in media management from The New School for Public Engagement. A stickler about municipal boundary lines, April enjoys teaching people about unincorporated Clark County. She grew up in Sunrise Manor and currently resides in Paradise with her husband, two children and two mutts.

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