Last month, the American Medical Association released a report indicating every state in the nation has reported a spike or increase in overdose deaths since the start of the pandemic.
The Centers for Disease Control reported in July more than 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020, an increase of nearly 30% nationwide. But Graham and Greenlee counties appear to have bucked the trend.
According to statistics from the Office of the Pima County Medical Examiner, 14 people in Graham County and two people in Greenlee County died as a result of overdoses between July 1, 2020, and July 31, 2021.
For years, Pima County has been called upon to conduct autopsies on people who died alone when Graham and Greenlee counties’ own medical examiners weren’t able to determine a cause of death.
That arrangement still exists in Greenlee County, but Pima County began conducting all autopsies for Graham County on July 1, 2020.
Because neither Greenlee County nor Graham County kept data on unattended deaths in a reportable document, Pima County Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess said he can’t say how many overdoses or suicides took place in Graham and Greenlee counties prior to the pandemic.
However, anecdotally speaking, he hasn’t seen a surge in overdoses or suicides in those cases his office did receive. Nor is he alarmed by the numbers over the past year in either county.
According to Hess’ records, three people in each county committed suicide between July 1, 2020, and July 31, 2021.
“The numbers are small and merely reflective of the total population,” Hess said of the suicide and overdose numbers.
Although both counties may not be experiencing an increase in overdoses, when people do overdose they tend to use the same drugs seen nationwide.
According to records from the medical examiner’s office, eight of the 14 overdoses in Graham County and both of the overdoses in Greenlee County involved fentanyl, either alone or with methamphetamine. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid that is similar to morphine but is 50 to 100 times more potent.
Pima Police Chief Diane Cauthen said she is not surprised people are turning to drugs and contemplating suicide because of “the times we’re living in,” especially with the ongoing pandemic.
“A lot of people are in a very fragile state of mind and when you throw something that’s not normal at them, it sometimes throws them over the top,” she said.
Thatcher Police Chief Shaffen Woods said people have always struggled with substance abuse issues, it’s just the types of drugs that change. There for awhile it was methamphetamine, then it was prescription drugs and now its opioids like fentanyl and heroin.
“When I started it was unheard of to have a heroin case,” the 22-year veteran said.
Graham County Undersheriff Jeff McCormies said he doesn’t know what the numbers are, but it seems as though his office is responding to more and more overdoses. Whatever the numbers are, he said, they’re tragic.
As for suicides, McCormies said he doesn’t believe the county has experienced a spike since nearly a dozen people committed suicide in a matter of months in 2016-17, including some children.
Professional counselors from Southeastern Arizona Behavioral Services came to help Safford students and staff through the trauma, and Safford Unified School District and law enforcement agencies also put together a community meeting at the David M. Player Center for the Arts.
The “See, Say, Do Something” campaign was also created and remains effective today, McCormies said.
According to The Journal of the American Medical Association and CDC, deaths by suicide declined by almost 6% from 2019 to 2020 in the United States. Suicide experts believe suicide rates tend to decrease in the aftermath of a communal trauma because of social cohesion and shared suffering, the journal reported.