New Jersey experienced a record number of overdose deaths during the first half of this year, according to state data, and could surpass the all-time high number of drug-related fatalities recorded in 2020 if the current pattern holds.

Between January and the end of June, 1,626 New Jerseyans lost their lives to an overdose, the state Attorney General’s office reports, nearly three dozen more deaths than were recorded by that point last year. If this pace continues through the fall, more than 3,250 people would die in this manner during 2021 — an increase of more than 6% over the 2020 total, an NJ Spotlight News analysis found.

Overdose deaths have been on the rise for more than a decade in New Jersey before they appeared to peak in 2018, when some 3,118 residents lost their lives in this way. The tally declined to 3,021 in 2019, before creeping up again to 3,046 last year.

Experts say the recent increase reflects the impact of the ongoing pandemic, which has led a growing number of people to turn to drugs and alcohol to cope with the isolation, fear and economic- and health-related stress. Gov. Phil Murphy’s administration has continued to invest tens of millions of dollars annually in efforts to expand access to treatment and other social services for those with substance use disorders.

But support for these programs is not universal. In July, Atlantic City voted to close a harm-reduction center because of concerns about its impact on the resort’s tourist district. It was one of six facilities statewide that offered free clean needles and other assistance to IV drug users, a proven way to combat overdoses and the spread of infection. State officials later offered their support for a bill by Sen. Joe Vitale (D-Middlesex) that would give the state Department of Health power in deciding where harm-reduction programs should be located, instead of local governments.

A multiyear trend

“As we experience a rise in drug use and overdose deaths nationally and in New Jersey due to the pandemic, we must confront this public health issue head on by securing access to sterile needle exchange services in our state,” Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver, who was acting governor while Murphy was on vacation, said in an Aug. 12 statement advocating for Vitale’s bill.

The latest increase in overdose deaths in New Jersey also caps a multiyear trend. Experts at Rutgers University’s Center for Health Services Research said they found that overdose risk more than tripled in New Jersey from 2014 to 2019, based on Medicaid data that included both fatalities and individuals who were treated and survived.

The researcher team — led by Professor Stephen Crystal, Molly Nowels and Peter Treitler — also found the rising overdose risk coincided with a decrease by nearly 50% in prescription opioid use among Medicaid members. And it came as fentanyl, a synthetic opioid many times stronger than heroin, became a more common ingredient in street drugs; police seizures of suspected heroin laced with fentanyl jumped from 2% to 80% here over the six-year period.

“While high rates of opioid prescribing contributed to earlier increases in opioid overdose deaths, actions to further limit such prescribing have had limited effects on overdose rates,” the team said in a news release.

Many overdoses do not lead to death, the group noted. And it found that individuals who were treated and survived were more likely than other Medicaid members to have permanent disabilities and other medical and mental health needs. They are also more likely to overdose again, the research indicated.

The “results document a rapid increase in overdose risk among individuals with opioid use disorder in an environment in which fentanyl is highly prevalent, and highlight the need for intensified services and engagement of non-treatment seekers, and integrated models to address multiple co-occurring conditions and risk factors,” they concluded in the abstract of an article slated for publication soon in the Journal of Substance Abuse Treatment.

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