PHILADELPHIA—Unintentional drug overdoses have contributed to significant premature death in Philadelphia in 2021. For that year, the Health Department recorded 1,276 fatal drug overdoses in Philadelphia. This is the most drug overdose deaths reported in a year in Philadelphia. The 5% increase over the number of overdose deaths recorded in 2020 is lower than the 15% increase reported nationally by the CDC earlier this year.
Mayor Jim Kenney has expressed his “heartbreak from the irreparable loss created by the overdose crisis.” He goes on to point out that “this year’s report reflects a concerning rise in fatalities, and it indicates where work is needed to expand and tailor outreach and education so that people know the risks associated with using any kind of street drugs. We continue to invest in prevention, treatment, and harm reduction, and are grateful for the City departments and partners working year-round to save lives in the face of this complex, national crisis.”
Although overdoses increased among all racial/ethnic groups in 2021, a significant rise in overdose deaths among non-Hispanic Black Philadelphians are reflective of the differences observed in unintentional overdose deaths. Specifically, the report reveals that non-Hispanic Black Philadelphians experienced the highest increase in reported overdose deaths compared to other racial and ethnic groups and more deaths from overdoses than non-Hispanic White Philadelphians.
While 82% of overdose deaths involved opioids, there was a marked rise in the number of overdose deaths that involved stimulants, including cocaine or methamphetamine, which were found in two-thirds of overdose deaths. Fentanyl was found in 77% of all overdose deaths in 2021, but 94% of overdose deaths in which any opioids were found.
“We are extremely concerned about the continued rise in overdose deaths and ripple effects of these deaths on individuals, families, and communities in the City,” said Health Commissioner Dr. Cheryl Bettigole. “The increase in overdose deaths that involve stimulants requires new approaches because many people at risk of dying of an overdose may not recognize themselves in outreach efforts and materials aimed at those who use opioids. With fentanyl contaminating Philadelphia’s entire drug supply, anyone who takes street drugs of any kind is at risk. We are determined to use every strategy available to reverse these trends.”
The report also found that Xylazine, a veterinary anesthetic and pain reliever sometimes called Tranq, is increasingly found in opioid-involved overdose deaths. In 2021, 41% of all opioid-involved overdose deaths, and 44% of all fentanyl-involved deaths, also involved xylazine. More broadly, xylazine was detected in 34% of all overdose deaths in 2021. This represents a 39% increase from 2020.
The Health Department is taking numerous steps to help combat this fatal outbreak. We are continuing to support a city-wide overdose fatality review to better understand the circumstances surrounding unintentional overdose fatalities and make recommendations to better ensure the health and safety of Philadelphians that include:
- Performing outreach in neighborhoods specifically impacted by stimulants.
- Developing resources for providers to discuss stimulant use and related risks.
- Launching campaigns about risks associated with stimulant and polysubstance use, and distributing naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug, to organizations serving at-risk populations.
- Educating the public on opioid overdose recognition and naloxone use, installing naloxone towers at Lucien E. Blackwell Library.
- Implementing an overdose awareness campaign that considers the diversity of people who use drugs.
- Distributing fentanyl test strips and providing training on how to test drugs before using and partnering with Next Distro to provide mail-based naloxone and fentanyl test strips.
Meanwhile, the public can help in this battle by taking steps that include:
- Obtain and get trained on how to use naloxone to prevent opioid overdose fatalities. Naloxone is available at pharmacies in Pennsylvania without a prescription under a standing order signed by the Pennsylvania Physician General.
- For those who use drugs, utilize universal precautions such as carrying naloxone and testing your drugs for fentanyl with fentanyl test strips.
- Avoid taking medications that are not prescribed for you and ask medical providers who prescribe opioids for pain about alternative, safer forms of pain control.
- Seek buprenorphine or methadone treatment if dependent on opioids.
The full report is available for download at https://www.phila.gov/departments/department-of-public-health/data/.
Below are valuable resources the general public can readily use to get the help they need.
Drug treatment referrals and education:
Harm reduction resources and education, including syringe exchange and infectious disease screening:
Prevention Point of Philadelphia
Information on how to obtain and use Naloxone:
If you’re unsure of what service you require and do not have medical insurance, call:
Behavioral Health Special Initiative at (215) 546-1200 or Community Behavioral Health at (888) 545-2600