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Arkansas' increase in overdoses in 2020, explained

by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette , Nyssa Kruse | July 21, 2021 at 10:55 a.m.
Small vials of fentanyl are shown in this June 1, 2018, file photo. (AP/Rick Bowmer)

This story is a part of The Article, your guide to Arkansas news and culture, presented by the Democrat-Gazette. Sign up for The Article's twice-weekly newsletter here or to see stories that have appeared in past newsletters, go here.

Overdose deaths in Arkansas are estimated to have increased by more than 40% in 2020 according to data released last week by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What does a 40% increase actually mean?

The CDC National Center for Health Statistics estimates 515 people died because of overdoses in Arkansas during 2020, compared to 363 people dying in 2019.

That’s an increase of 152 deaths, or about a 40% increase.

While nearly all states' overdose deaths increased during the pandemic, the increase in Arkansas’ estimated 2020 toll was higher than the national average, the report shows. The nation saw about 93,331 overdose deaths in 2020, a 29.4% increase from the 72,151 deaths in 2019.

Why did overdoses increase in 2020 in Arkansas?

There were two main reasons identified by experts: the pandemic and an influx of fentanyl into the state.

Chris Dickie, CEO of the Natural State Recovery Centers, said the pandemic caused various support groups and other resources for people struggling with addiction to shut down.

A lot of people in recovery suddenly struggled in isolation, Dickie said.

"Addiction thrives in isolation," he said.

Fentanyl, a very strong opioid, became the deadliest drug in Arkansas in 2020 for the first time, passing methamphetamine, Arkansas Drug Director Kirk Lane said.

Dickie said another factor in the increase in overdoses was an overall increase in people struggling with addiction.

“There was a lot of new people who had never struggled before this year,” Dickie said. “Lots of people who had never reached out for help or ever sought treatment before were all of a sudden in the pool, and that might be a part of the desperation that the pandemic caused."

What is being done to help fight the rise in overdoses?

The Arkansas State Chamber, Walmart, AFMC and Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield partnered to launch Together Arkansas during the pandemic. The program helps employers connect employees struggling with addiction to resources.

Kirk said another tool launched was AR-Connect, a 24-hour hotline that connects individuals with mental or substance abuse issues to immediate resources.

Those in need of help can reach AR-Connect at (501) 526-3563.

Read more about how addiction and overdoses affected Arkansas last year from reporter Teresa Moss.

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