San Francisco — If you live in San Francisco, you may not be surprised by an August from the Department of Public Health that on average, more than one person a day died from a drug overdose. The 441 recorded deaths in 2019 are a 70% increase over 2018. Unfortunately, 2020 is expected to be even worse as the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions have made rehabilitation services even harder to reach. Fast forward to October and there is more tragic news. Between January and August of 2020, there have already been 468 fatal overdoses and the city is likely to experience almost two deaths by overdose a day by the end of the year. A confluence of factors such as the availability of fentanyl, an increase in the number of people using while alone because of the pandemic, policing, and the housing crisis have been cited as contributing factors to the dramatic rise.
In response to the ongoing crisis, San Francisco mayor London Breed renewed her call to allow safe-consumption sites (SCSs) or safe-injection sites, which are currently prohibited by state law. This comes in response to the California legislature tabling AB 362, which would have enabled cities to open these facilities which have been shown in NIH studies to improve public health outcomes. Other solutions include Proposition A on the November 3 ballot, which would generate $60 million dollars to help fund substance abuse and mental health facilities and services. With that said, it is clear that the current patchwork of rehabilitation services is not effective for those in desperate need of help and the proposed updates to current rehabilitation services will take months to years to implement.
For perspective, as of October 20th, San Francisco had reported 133 fatalities from the COVID-19 pandemic. Almost 4 times as many people have passed away from overdose than this world historic plague. While COVID-19 is highly contagious and drastic measures are needed to curb its spread, it is alarming that an equally radical and compassionate response to the overdose pandemic that has taken so many more loved ones has not been proposed. In the meantime, one way we can all personally be prepared to help someone in need is to attend a training on overdose prevention from organizations such as the DOPE Project. Living in San Francisco in the midst of the overdose epidemic can feel like being in a greenhouse full of wilting flowers that ought to be blooming vibrant colors if the water spigot was not throttled. Unfortunately, systemic changes are years away.