CDC reports a record number of drug overdose deaths during the pandemic

Updated: Feb. 18, 2021 at 9:20 PM CST
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - The CDC reports a record number of drug overdose deaths during the pandemic. And, our area certainly isn’t immune. The Jefferson Parish Coroner says there’s been a substantial spike. But, those are more than just concerning figures for local parents who now grieve the loss of their only children.

“It’s a pandemic within a pandemic and no one talks about it,” said Jacqueline Levine. She says the pain is unbearable. “Every parent does, oh if something happened to my child, but when it does, the pain is a thousand times more than you could ever imagine,” she said.

Her only child would have turned 33 this month.

“He had such a big heart and he was such a kind person and the last experience I had was driving him from Austin to New Orleans and we had such a good time and we were laughing and never in my wildest dreams if you told me in five days he will be dead or gone,” said Levine.

Jordan grew up Uptown and graduated from Newman High School in 2006.

“People were drawn to him, people loved him, he had a great laugh, he had a great sense of humor, he was really smart, he was an amazing chess player, he had been playing chess since he was three,” said Levine.

His mother believes it started following Hurricane Katrina. When the storm hit and cell service went down, she says she and Jordan, who was 17 at the time, were separated for a week. It was then she believes he started experimenting with drugs.

“There’s just an attitude about it that really does anger me because my son was a really beautiful soul and he would do anything for you and I don’t want people to think of him as someone who was a useless human being because he was not.” Levine says Jordan was talented. He worked in film production and even wrote a screenplay. He tried to kick drugs and agreed to rehab for 90 days. She says he was doing great. “I was fortunate enough that I could pay for rehab, my son did not have insurance and he had no way to be able to do that on his own,” said Levine.

Then came the pandemic, what Jordan had long struggled with was now complicated even more.

“I think with this pandemic, there is isolation, there’s depression people are out of work,” said Levine. “It’s a brain disorder and once you slip it’s very, very difficult to get back on the wagon so to speak.”

On March 27, 2020, Jordan Levine died of an opioid overdose at a friend’s Uptown home.

“It’s coming up on year and it doesn’t ever get easier, it doesn’t, it actually can become more painful,” said Levine. ”Some days I pretend he’s not dead just to get through the day.”

Levine doesn’t grieve alone. In December the CDC reported, “over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.” The agency said, “While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic.”

“We know that a lot of these deaths are preventable and one thing we believe with harm reduction is meeting people where they’re at and providing them with the resources to live a healthy life,” said Nadia Eskildsen with the New Orleans Syringe Access Program.

Eskildsen is on the front lines of trying to save lives. She’s the coordinator for the New Orleans Syringe Access Program at Crescent Care, a community health center in St. Roch. Eskildsen says during the pandemic they’ve seen a spike in the number of people they see each week.

“We see about an average of 300 to 350 people every single week,” said Eskildsen. ”This time last year we were seeing an average of 200 to 250 people every week and going back to those overdose statistics put out by the CDC, we ourselves in Orleans Parish have seen a 30 to 40 percent increase in overdoses which are preventable deaths.”

At the New Orleans Syringe Access Program, users can access free, sterile syringes, as well as the life-saving medication, Naloxone. It can reverse an opioid overdose.

“From the data that we collected during 2020 between August and the end of the year we had 109 reported overdose reversals using Naloxone that was distributed through our program,” said Eskildsen. ”That’s 109 lives that were saved, so we know the overdose epidemic is preventable.”

Eskildsen says the syringe access program is also an entry way to care, linking people to Hepatitis C and HIV treatment. But, she says resources aren’t always available in other areas.

“People are having difficulty getting these tools, accessing these resources in their communities, not just the Naloxone, but fentanyl testing strips to make sure that the drugs that they are taking are safe, those are currently considered paraphernalia in the state of Louisiana which is greatly unfortunate,” Eskildsen said.

Levine is also trying to spare another family from the pain she feels every moment of every day.

“I want in his name to be able to do advocacy that helps other people,” Levine said.

She wants to advocate for decriminalizing drugs, not for dealers, but for addicts. She also would like to see better access and more affordable treatment options for those who want to get help in an inpatient recovery program. “What I am advocating right now is that drug addicts should not be put in jail, they should be helped and treated,” said Levine.

She says she tells her story for Jordan, for other parents, and for those struggling with the disease of addiction.

“I don’t think my son wanted to die but the reality is he did. I need to keep him alive, his memory alive, that’s my mission,” Levine said. “A parent should not outlive their child, they just should not, it’s just really, really awful.”

In response to the acceleration of drug overdose deaths during the pandemic, the CDC says it issued a health advisory to medical and public health officials as well as harm reduction organizations. The agency recommends expanding distribution of Naloxone and overdose prevention education.

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