New Study Identifies Emerging Disparities in Opioid Overdoses Since COVID-19

University of Pennsylvania Perelman School of Medicine

January 21, 2021

Philadelphia – Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, opioid overdose deaths have continued to surge and receive national attention across the United States. Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania have released a study that analyzed data in Philadelphia, showing the effect of the pandemic on opioid use and the hardship that has been overwhelmingly suffered by Black individuals.

The cross-sectional study extracted deidentified publicly available data from the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Substance Use Data Dashboard from January 2019 to June 2020. By analyzing data from three separate time periods, Utsha Khatri, the study’s leading author, an MD and fellow in the National Clinician Scholars Program at Penn and an Emergency Medicine physician, and her team were able to note changes in demographic makeup prior to the pandemic, ahead of Pennsylvania’s stay-at-home orders, and the period that followed.

While the overall data remained unchanged between each time period, disparities became evident as researchers broke out the numbers by race.

“Philadelphia has been devastated by the opioid crisis, which was experienced previously more acutely in the white community,” says Khatri. “Recently, however, we tracked a disturbing trend toward higher rates of fatal and non-fatal overdoses among Black Philadelphia residents. These differential trends in opioid overdose suggest that racial inequities were exacerbated by the pandemic.”

Not only was the Black community hit heavily since the start of the pandemic, but also with the resulting social and economic fallout. The research theorizes that economic factors, such as job loss and business closures, could have a potential effect on the increase of fatal and non-fatal drug overdoses. One reason, Fentanyl, a cheap and potent synthetic opioid is being found in non-opioid drugs, and putting users who turn to more economical drugs with no prior exposure to opioids at a higher risk of overdose.

In addition, another theorized factor relating to increased overdose rates was the lack of equitable opioid treatment. One in particular, Buprenorphine is a medication increasingly used to soothe opioid cravings that requires a doctors prescription. Previous research has shown that buprenorphine is “more available to white patients than those who are Black.”

While the study was focused on Philadelphia, the researchers believe that it could be valuable to cities across the country if their health departments reported demographic data by race. “Cities across the country must examine trends in overdoses across various sociodemographic groups to have a more granular understanding of who is being affected and the best way to target response efforts,” Khatri said.

Read the full news release here.