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Calhoun County overdose deaths surged in 2020, coroner says

Deaths from drug overdose rose sharply in Calhoun County last year, though the role of the pandemic in the trend is still unclear. 

“We’re really seeing heroin as a problem right now, “ Coroner Pat Brown said Thursday. 

Brown is set to be one of the speakers at next week’s Opioid Roundtable, a virtual version of the annual anti-drug event organized by the Anniston-based nonprofit Agency for Substance Abuse Prevention. 

ASAP officials, using numbers from Brown’s office, say it’s likely overdose deaths in the county doubled in 2020. Eleven people in the county died from overdoses in 2019, said Seyram Selase, director of ASAP. The group has so far counted at least 21 deaths from 2020, with more likely to come as local officials await lab results on some outstanding cases from last year. 

Selase believes the pandemic has made the county’s drug problems worse. 

“I think a lot of people are feeling isolated, and they’re feeling that there’s not a lot of hope out there,” Selase said. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in December reported that overdoses nationwide hit a record high in the period ending May 2020, with 81,000 dead in that 12-month stretch. According to the CDC, numbers were already increasing before COVID-19 hit, but accelerated in the early months of the pandemic.  

Brown said he’s not sure how large a role coronavirus played in the local increase. He said heroin overdoses increased for several months, an indication that more of the drug may be available locally. Brown does believe, though, that pandemic-related isolation has likely led to local deaths. 

Brown said his office received nearly 1,000 calls this year, when a typical year produces 750. Not every call to the coroner represents a death, Brown said, but the numbers typically track. Brown said the number of suicides has increased in the last month. He said there’s no way to tell whether at-home deaths of older people, from natural causes, are tied to social isolation, though he suspects some are. 

“When you’ve got elderly folks not leaving their house, I believe it leads to a failure to thrive,” he said. 

Selase, Brown and others will discuss the issue at the roundtable event Tuesday from 6-8 p.m., held online. The event is free to the public. For information on how to attend, contact Iesha Beard at 256-343-9491.

Capitol & statewide reporter Tim Lockette: 256-294-4193. On Twitter @TLockette_Star.