Drug and alcohol related deaths spiked in 2020, Harris County medical examiner data shows

The year 2020 saw big increases in drug and alcohol-related deaths, according to newly released data from the Harris County medical examiner’s office.

Addiction recovery experts say they saw a big increase in people turning to drugs and alcohol to get through the pandemic, and medical examiner records show an increased number of those people ended up dying.

"Alcohol intake went up, and a lot of pills and opiates were taken while they’re working from home," said Rachel Ausbern, program director at Legacy House Sober Living in the Woodlands.

More people either developed addictions or relapsed in 2020, said Ausbern.

"People that I’ve known that have several years—anywhere from three to five to nine years—sobriety have gone back out and relapsed," said Ausbern. "Several friends of mine have died from this in 2020—about four different people from overdose."

2020 was a deadlier year overall, according to the Harris County Institute of Forensic Sciences (medical examiner’s office) whose data released to FOX 26 shows they examined 5,132 deaths in 2020 compared to 4,586 deaths in 2019.

Substance abuse was a significant part of that increase. Alcohol-related deaths were up 36 percent in 2020 compared to 2019, with 649 deaths related to alcohol/ethanol in 2020 and 476 such deaths in 2019.

The medical examiner’s office investigated a total of 249 fentanyl-related deaths in 2020, which is more than double the 102 fentanyl deaths they investigated in 2019.

Substance abuse counselors worry 2020 holiday season will increase alcohol abuse

Mary Beck, Executive Vice-President for the Council on Recovery in Houston says overdose deaths have increased throughout the pandemic, and, generally, around the holidays they go up 22 percent.

Cocaine-related deaths were up 26 percent in 2020 with 374 deaths, and methamphetamine-related deaths were up 36 percent in 2020 with 290 deaths.

Heroin-related deaths decreased by six percent to 196 in 2020 compared to 208 the year before.

"It makes me feel grateful that I didn’t get to that point," said Katherine McGuire who told FOX 26 she became addicted to alcohol and cocaine while working from home in the pandemic.

"Some business was down, so I found myself with some extra time, started drinking more, started using cocaine more," said McGuire. "I even picked up smoking weed again, and it just spiraled out of control, and unfortunately that consumed my life. Everything became chaotic, and on October 30 I had gotten into an accident and received a DWI."

She checked into rehab for 30 days and is entering 2021 on a better foot, staying at Legacy House Sober Living and getting back to a more normal work environment at her job in oil and gas.

"I’m actually back in the office—thank God," said McGuire. "Just interacting with people is a huge part of it as well…. You can’t have a glass of wine while you sit there and read emails."

Experts say fellowship is very important for addiction recovery. If you want to look at meetings, you can go to aa.org. You can also download an app called Pink Cloud. It will show you all the in-person and zoom meetings in the Houston area.