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Iowa Opioid-Related Deaths Increased By 35 Percent In 2020

Michael Longmire
Opioid-related deaths increased by 35 percent in Iowa in 2020.

State health data shows that opioid-related deaths in Iowa increased 35 percent last year, but it's unclear if that increase is linked to the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to provisional data from the Iowa Department of Public Health, 212 deaths in 2020 involved opioids.

This marks the third year in a row the number of opioid-related deaths has increased in the state. There were 157 deaths in 2019 and 137 deaths in 2018.

Kevin Gabbert, the opioid initiatives director for the state health department, said it’s unclear if the pandemic has played a role in the increase.

But Gabbert said some COVID-related factors could have placed individuals at a higher risk for an overdose.

"Some of those individuals that are using in isolation, especially with opioids, and they don't have the benefit of somebody else around that could recognize the signs of an overdose and administer Narcan," he said.

Narcan is the brand name for the drug naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose.

Gabbert said COVID-19 may also cause more complications for opioid-users, as the virus causes a respiratory-related illness and respiratory depression is a prime cause of death of an opioid overdose.

He said a major factor is the increase is the number of people mixing drugs like methamphetamine with powerful opioids like fentanyl, and said that some people who buy drugs off the street aren't aware of their true potency.

"You've got fentanyl, you know, which is anywhere from 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine," Gabbert said. "And individuals using at a rate that they're used to, because of tolerance, that creates another whole set of problems."

He said the state saw a 13 percent increase in deaths resulting from opioids and psychostimulants like methamphetamines in 2020.

Gabbert said the state is working on expanding the number of providers who can offer treatment for opioid addiction though a federal grant it received last year.

Natalie Krebs is IPR's Health Reporter