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SF Witnesses A Decline in Drug Overdose Deaths for the First Time in 3 Years

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According to the SF Department of Public Health (SFDPH), San Francisco is seeing a decline in accidental drug overdose deaths for the first time in three years. 

Last Wednesday, January 19, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner (OCME) released a year’s worth of monthly reports that show promise for the collective health and wellbeing of San Francisco. These preliminary findings illustrate that “accidental overdose deaths in 2021 were 7% lower than 2020, representing the first decline since 2018.”

In 2020, San Francisco lost 713 residents to accidental drug overdoses, a total that surged amidst the Covid-19 pandemic and its economic fallout.

In 2021, San Francisco lost 650 residents. 

Houselessness in the San Francisco Tenderloin.

This decline may seem minor, but in a city that has seen a dramatic increase in overdose deaths since 2018, it’s significant.

Consistently, the leading culprit is fentanyl, a dangerously potent synthetic opioid that was responsible for around 73% of these accidental overdose deaths in both 2020 and 2021.

“We are losing over two people a day to drug overdoses, mostly to fentanyl, and mostly in the Tenderloin and SoMa,” said Supervisor Matt Haney in a pivotal press release last month, in which Mayor London Breed declared an official “State of Emergency” in the Tenderloin. 

Breed’s 90-day “Tenderloin Emergency Intervention Plan” promised to “eliminate bureaucratic barriers” that delay aid for those in need of medical attention, treatment, and detox. The Emergency Declaration also “allows the City to expedite the implementation of emergency programs like waiving rules around contract procurement and waiving zoning and planning codes to quickly open a temporary linkage site where people with substance use issues can receive behavioral health services and get off the street.” 

Breed’s “Tenderloin Emergency Intervention Plan” promised to “eliminate bureaucratic barriers” that delay aid for those in need of medical attention, treatment, and detox.

Just last Tuesday, the City opened the Tenderloin Linkage Center at 1172 Market Street, a “services-focused location” that provides short and long-term services, including substance use treatment, transitional housing, food coordination, behavioral healthcare, vocational support, and therapy. Although the center is currently operating at reduced capacity due to Covid-19 restrictions, it will eventually offer 24 hour service 7 days-per-week, and accommodate as many as 100 guests at a time. 

Additionally, a drug-sobering center called SoMa RISE will open later this year. Given the notably high rates of drug overdoses in the SoMa district, SoMa RISE will offer a “safe space for people who are intoxicated to come inside and be connected to services.” 

It should be noted that some local groups like the Coalition on Homelessness San Francisco (CoHSF) are not convinced that Breed’s intervention is well-intentioned. “It’s clear that this plan was developed to remove certain people out of public space — not to actually prevent overdose deaths or improve public safety,” CoHSF Human Rights Organizer Carlos Wadkins stated.

Nevertheless, certain services have proven to be effective. Continued distribution of naloxone or “Narcan,” for example, is vital. Used in emergency treatment of an opioid overdose, the “opioid-antagonist” blocks certain receptors in the body that opioids bind to, relieving the potentially fatal symptoms of an overdose. 

Thanks to City services and excellent community organizations like the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education (DOPE) Project, more than 4,300 overdose deaths were reversed in 2020 using naloxone. In 2021, an additional 6,800 overdoses were reversed following the distribution of 28,000 naloxone kits. 

These city-wide efforts will only expand in 2022, according to the SFDPH

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Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky

Lydia Sviatoslavsky covers culture and curiosities for Bay City News and Broke-Ass Stuart. She publishes artist interviews and experimental writing at thought-rot.net. You can find her on Instagram at @rot_thought.