PHILADELPHIA-The number of people who died from overdose in Philadelphia in 2020 was virtually the same as the peak of the overdose crisis in 2017, which was an increase of 5.6% over 2019. In 2020, there were 1,214 people who died of an overdose in Philadelphia, while in 2017 1,217 people died of an overdose. Non-Hispanic Black and Hispanic overdose deaths rose in 2020 by 29% and 1%, respectively, while the percent of Non-Hispanic White overdose deaths dropped by 10%.

“While the COVID-19 pandemic has been on the forefront of most people’s minds, the overdose crisis continues unabated,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole. “Social isolation and the increasing contamination of many street drugs with fentanyl have made overdoses tougher to prevent and treat. Thanks to the hard work of our staff and advocates working tirelessly to save lives, 2020 wasn’t the worst year ever. Still, too many lives have been lost and we mourn each and every one.”

The Health Department’s Substance Use Prevention and Harm Reduction division’s Annual Report provides an overview of how substance use is affecting our residents. The report tracks data on prescribing trends, morbidity, mortality, hospitalizations, Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and emergency department (ED) use, as well as reported cases of Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS).

In addition to the changes in overdose deaths, the report also highlights an increase in cases of NAS, a clinical diagnosis used to describe a collection of signs and symptoms that occur when a newborn infant withdraws from certain drugs. In 2020, there were 275 NAS cases reported to PDPH, a 6% increase from 260 cases in 2019.

Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, The Health Department’s response to the substance use crisis continued. In 2020, the Health Department distributed nearly 60,000 doses of naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, and provided training for more 3,000 people on how to use it. More than 67,700 used syringes were collected in the Health Department’s 23 sharp disposal boxes across the city, a 500% increase from the 11,300 used syringes collected in 2019.

While the COVID-19 pandemic may have created new challenges for substance use treatment services, PDPH supported the launch of community programs such as Action Wellness’ Linkage and Engagement After Prison (LEAP) program to assist formerly incarcerated individuals living with opioid use disorder and Project Reach, a harm reduction focused sanitation program that aims to improve the quality of life for residents in communities that have been heavily impacted by drug use and ensures that naloxone is widely available to businesses, residents, and high-risk populations.

The Health Department was pleased to see a continued drop in prescribing practices for some substances. Opioid analgesic, benzodiazepine, and stimulant prescriptions received by Philadelphia residents decreased by 15.4%, 11.2%, and 8.4% from 2019, respectively, while buprenorphine prescriptions increased 3%.

EMS incidents and the number of ED visits related to drug overdoses from opioids or unspecified substances decreased 38% and 14% from 2019, respectively. Notably, the decrease in visits for drug overdoses from opioids or unspecified substances was not a unique phenomenon. The total number of ED visits for all conditions decreased 23% from 2019, likely due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The full Annual Report can be downloaded from