There was a dramatic increase in the number of drug overdoses in Evanston during the peak years of the COVID-19 pandemic compared to the period before the virus ravaged the nation.

Data obtained by Evanston Now from the Evanston Police Department shows 42 drug overdose runs in 2020, the first year of the pandemic, more than double the average for the three previous years.

In 2021 there was a huge jump in the number of overdose victims who died, from 2 to 14.

The spike now seems to be declining, as the total number of drug runs in 2022 dropped from the peak COVID years, but is still more than before the virus hit. Deaths in 2022 are back to around the pre-COVID level.

Of course, the obvious question is why did both the number of runs and the number of deaths increase when the pandemic was at its’ worst, and one of the answers is apparently the pandemic itself.

Even though Evanston had a much higher COVID-vaccination rate than did just about anywhere, more immunizations still could not immunize everyone from the nationwide trends associated with the pandemic, including an increase in the use of opioids.

Police Cmdr. Ryan Glew theorizes that “as people grappled with social issues,” more turned to drugs.

Lately, Glew says, “with social pressures lessening, it lessened those who self-medicated.”

Professor Maryanne Mason is on the emergency medicine faculty at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, and is an expert on overdose deaths.

Mason, who has studied drug-related fatalities in Cook County, says a big driver in the rising number of deaths is the presence of fentanyl in the illicit drug supply.

“Clearly the fentanyl is more potent, and has more impact” on the increasing death toll.

Mason suggests that many who have died from overdoses in recent years have been drug abusers for decades, but were able to survive.

Now, however, those individuals are “at really high risk due to the increasing potency of fentanyl.”

Also, during the pandemic, many drug rehab centers closed temporarily, cutting off access to treatment. And, the pandemic also led to layoffs, and the loss of health insurance.

Another Evanston trend is also typical of what’s seen around the country.

EPD says over the past six years, 18 people had two or more overdoses, accounting for a third of all the emergency runs.

Mason notes that “it’s very normal for people who die from overdoses to have previous overdoses.”

In addition, not all overdoses are from opoids. In Evanston, 73% of the total number overdose runs were opioid related. The rest involved other substances.

Mason says this, too, is not unusual. She says some people who use substances such as cocaine or other non-opioid stimulants may have survived for years, but recently, “the stimulant supply as well” has been contaminated with more dangerous components.

Even though the Evanston emergency drug runs and deaths are decreasing since peak COVID, there is additional cause for concern here and nationally.

Mason says a new contaminant named xylazine, which she calls “the devil incarnate,” is being added to the illegal drug supply.

Xylazine, Mason says, is an animal tranquilizer. It is not an opioid, and thus someone who overdoses can not be revived with naloxone (narcan), which has saved many lives.

“We have a ways to go to fix this,” says Mason, about the drug overdose issue in general.

There are racial and economic disparities (often connected) regarding access to nalaxone and to medically assisted treatment to drug addiction.

And there’s one more sad footnote to all of this.

The number of drug-related deaths may be declining now because, Mason notes, many of those likely to die have already done so.

“This opioid epidemic has killed a lot of people. Some of those most most at risk have already passed away.”

Jeff Hirsh joined the Evanston Now reporting team in 2020 after a 40-year award-winning career as a broadcast journalist in Cincinnati, Ohio.

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  1. There have been several to many overdoses at the Margarita Inn over the fast 2-3 years. Because of the shield in place and the non-cooperation with police it is difficult to know how many. The staff there are well supplied with narcan for this very reason.

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