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The Perelman School of Medicine found that fatal overdoses suffered by Black individuals in Philadelphia increased by over 50% within the last year.

Credit: Yosef Robele

Researchers from the Perelman School of Medicine found that opioid overdose deaths increased among Black Philadelphians during the pandemic, while decreasing among white residents.

The study, which was published in JAMA Network Open on Jan. 21, analyzed opioid overdose deaths following Philadelphia's announcement of a stay-at-home order in March. Researchers found that the number of fatal overdoses suffered by Black individuals increased by over 50% compared to the previous year while the rate for white individuals dropped by 31%, Penn Today reported.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit Philadelphia, the opioid crisis was experienced predominantly by white residents, the study's lead co-author Utsha Khatri told Penn Today.

“Recently, however, we tracked a disturbing trend toward higher rates of fatal and non-fatal overdoses among Black Philadelphia residents," Khatri, a fellow in the National Clinician Scholars Program at Penn, told Penn Today. "These differential trends in opioid overdose suggest that racial inequities were exacerbated by the pandemic.” 

The Philadelphia Department of Public Health and the Philadelphia Fire Department previously published opioid overdose trends by race in 2020 after seeing indications of a spike in overdoses among Black residents, Penn Today reported. This prompted senior author Eugenia South, an assistant professor of emergency medicine and the Penn Medicine vice chair for Inclusion, Diversity, and Equity, to launch an investigation into whether these rates are statistically distinct from previous years.

“The Black community has been hit incredibly hard since the start of the pandemic—both with the illness itself and the social and economic fallout, which includes increased gun violence, job loss, and closure of small businesses," South told Penn Today. "We believe the increase in fatal and nonfatal opioid overdoses is a symptom of that.”

Opiate addiction and overdoses are widespread across the United States. In 2017, the Department of Health and Human Services declared the opioid epidemic a public health emergency and announced a five-point strategy centered around support services, public health research, and "overdose-reversing" medications.

In 2016, Pennsylvania established Centers of Excellence for Opioid Use Disorder to provide support services for individuals with opioid use disorder, also known as opioid addiction. Three years later, Penn Medicine launched the Penn Addiction Center of Excellence to bring together researchers from the Radiology and Psychiatry Departments to better understand and improve the treatment for opioid use disorder. 

Narcan, a pre-packaged nasal spray, is a medication used to save people from opiate-related overdoses. All students in the Penn School of Dental Medicine are trained to administer Narcan in an effort to combat the opioid epidemic. Penn Public Safety and the student-run Medical Emergency Response Team are also equipped with Narcan, making the medicine available to Penn's campus and to the nearby community. 

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