A bag of heroin fentanyl pills, as seen on July 2, 2018. (U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration)

Overdose deaths spiked in Washington in 2020, increasing by 38% in the first half of the year compared to the first half of 2019, according to the state Department of Health (DOH). 

Most of that increase came from deaths involving fentanyl, a very strong opioid, according to the DOH. 

Preliminary data show 835 overdose deaths in the first six months of 2020 compared to 607 deaths in the first half of 2019. Fentanyl-involved deaths more than doubled from 137 to 309 during that time. Most deaths involved multiple substances.

The increase in overdose deaths was highest among American Indian, Alaska Natives, Hispanic, Latinx and Black people, according to the state. 

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected all of us,” said Bob Lutz, state medical advisor for the COVID-19 response. “Those Washingtonians with substance use disorder may have found themselves using more frequently, and unfortunately, the data suggest they are also overdosing more often.”

Many of the overdoses were caused by illicit fentanyl, a powerful opioid many are unaware has entered the market. 

In Washington, fentanyl has been found in counterfeit pills made to look like prescription opioid pills (often with an imprint of “M30” or “A215”), as well as in powders and black tar heroin. People can’t necessarily tell if fentanyl is present based on taste, smell or the look of the drug. People should assume that any drug not from a pharmacy could have fentanyl in it, according to the DOH. 

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