KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The opioid epidemic was reportedly given more fuel by the coronavirus pandemic, according to drug-related death data in the region, which has health officials lamenting the upward trends.

Officials from the Knox County Regional Forensic Center on Monday released the 2020 Drug-Related Death Report, highlighting the COVID-19 pandemic as part of the reason both Knox and Anderson counties saw significant increases in overdose deaths. In fact, a release states the number of overdose deaths in Knox County increased 41% compared to a 9.8% decrease in 2019; in Anderson County, drug overdose deaths increased 82% in 2020 compared to the 11.6% drop in 2019.

“As we began collaborating with a number of nonprofit and governmental agencies to bring awareness to the perils of overprescribing, the numbers of overdoses started to drop,” Dr. Darinka Mileusnic-Polchan, chief medical examiner, said. “Our efforts were finally paying off in 2019 as the overdose deaths began to decline. Unfortunately, 2020—the year of Coronavirus pandemic—happened and the rest is history.”

Matters were made worse, Mileusnic-Plochan said, because a great number of addicted and physically dependent individuals who needed help – whether medical assistance or psychological or physical rehabilitation – were left to their own devices. Mileusnic-Plochan also said business closures, job losses, social distancing, stress and economic hardships as well as lack of access to treatment led to the overall mortality from unnatural causes, including drugs.

What drugs were found in these overdose deaths? Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, and mixtures of opioid drugs led the way, according to the report. The data found that fentanyl, fentanyl analogues, and some of the novel synthetic opioids continued to be the most abused drugs. but among the stimulants, methamphetamine is the drug of choice either alone or in combination with opioids. 

Who are those most affected in this data? In Knox and Anderson counties, young and middle-age men continued to be disproportionately affected by drug overdose compared to women, according to the report.

The Knox County Regional Forensic Center’s 2020 Drug-Related Death Report can be viewed in its entirety below: