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'It's not surprising, it's been in this trajectory': Highest ever overdose death roll reported nationwide in Arizona between May 2020 and April 2021

From May 2020 to April 2021, 100,300 people nationwide have reportedly died from a drug overdose. Arizona saw a 28.5% increase during that period.

ARIZONA, USA — Drug overdose deaths in the U.S. surpassed 100,000 for the first time ever between May 2020 and April 2021, a grim milestone that included a nearly 30% increase in Arizona. 

Experts said that the number was made worse by the pandemic and a more dangerous supply of drugs.

Alondra Valeria Salinas was one of those people.

On Oct. 20, 2020, the night before the 14-year-old was set to return to in-person learning last year, her mother found her lying on her bed, cold.

“I tried waking her up,” said her mother, Ana Perez. “She wouldn’t get up. I touched her hand, and she was cold… I said ‘honey, are you cold?’ but she never replied.”

Alondra didn’t have an addiction, her mother said. She was excited about going back to in-person learning after months of being at home.

“We had gone and bought her new clothes and shoes,” Perez said. “That night she told me, ‘can you wake me up at six so I can get ready for school?’ she made sure I knew several times.”

That morning forever changed the Perez family.

“Until this day, I ask myself, 'what happened? Why?'” Perez said. “I have to be strong for my other two sons, one who is in rehab right now battling this problem.”

Alondra is one of the nearly 100,300 people the Center for Disease Control and Prevention said died from an overdose between May 2020 and April 2021. The provisional data is not an official count.

The report details that overdose deaths jumped 28.5% from the same time a year earlier and nearly doubled over the past five years.

Synthetic opioids, primarily fentanyl, caused nearly two-thirds (64%) of all drug overdose deaths, the CDC report found.

In Alondra’s case, Prescott Valley detectives said she died from a counterfeit pill that was laced with fentanyl.

Josephine Karchmaros, a professor at the University of Arizona who among many things, researches models for substance abuse. She said the pandemic and the rise of fentanyl in communities were key contributors to the record numbers’ increase.

“It’s not surprising, it’s been in this trajectory for the last several months,” Karchmaros said. “With the pandemic, the social unrest, isolation and additional stressors created by economic difficulties that everyone is facing… increased all of those factors for substance abuse.”

Overdose deaths in Arizona

Arizona’s death toll jumped 28.5% in the latest report by the CDC, going from 2,154 last year to 2,768 in April of this year.

The report illustrated an increase in deaths in almost every county in the Grand Canyon state.

Cochise County saw the largest jump at 65%, followed by Navajo County.

Data for Graham County, Greenlee County and La Paz County was incomplete or “suppressed in accordance with NCHS confidentiality standards” the agency’s website reads.

Opioid deaths reached a high of 1,982 in 2020, a 45% increase from 2019, the Arizona Department of Health Services said in a blog post published Wednesday.

The monthly number of deaths decreased since a high of 226 in July 2020, but AZDHS said it’s still too early to tell if deaths will continue to increase in 2021.

The challenge from overdose deaths has shifted to illegal use, primarily of counterfeit fentanyl pills, the state agency said.

Today, fentanyl is the most identified substance in verified opioid overdoses, AZDHS said. More than half of all verified opioid overdoses in 2021 have involved fentanyl, the agency added.

“We definitely see a disproportional impact of drug overdose deaths on minority, racial and ethnic populations,” said Karchmaros.

In a February survey, the CDC found that 37% of Latinos reported an increase in substance use or said they began to use, compared to below 16% for white and black communities.

That same report found that 59% of Latinos reported symptoms of depression during the COVID-19 pandemic, in comparison to non-Hispanic whites (40.3%).

RELATED: Man accused of selling lethal drugs to Mac Miller sentenced as Arizona opioid epidemic continues

Lasting effects of an overdose

The effect that overdoses have on families members is forever lasting.

For Ana Perez, losing her only daughter has remained an unbearable pain one year and a month after her death.

“She was too young to die like that,” the grieving mother said. “I just think she went somewhere and she’s going to come back, which I know she’s not… it hurts.”

If you or someone you know needs help, the CDC recommends calling the National Drug and Alcohol Treatment Referral Routing Service (1-800-662-HELP) to speak with someone about an alcohol or substance use problem.

Arizona also has two 24/7 opioid helpline centers, the Arizona Poison and Drug Information Center at the University of Arizona College of Pharmacy in Tucson and the Banner Poison and Drug Information Center in Phoenix.

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