One of the most frightening aspects of the COVID pandemic was watching people quickly morph into numbers — numbers of survivors, numbers of hospitalized, numbers of dead.
Although epidemiology works that way, fast and abstract, the reality is that we still have much to understand about this dark chapter in human history.
According to a study by the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health, homeless deaths in the county soared 56 percent in the year after the pandemic began. Overdoses are one of the leading causes.
According to the study, between April 1, 2020, and March 31, 2021, there were 1,988 homeless deaths, up from 1,271 in the previous 12 months before the pandemic.
Another report co-authored by scientists from UC San Francisco, the San Francisco Department of Public Health, and New York University found that the numbers recorded in San Francisco over a similar time period reflect the same reality, the Los Angeles Times reported.
In the year studied, 179 homeless people died from COVID-19, accounting for about a quarter of the increase in total deaths over the previous year.
However, the increase in fatal overdoses was the primary driver. In the year before the pandemic, the Department of Public Health reported just over 400 overdose deaths. In the year after the outbreak, that number nearly doubled to 715.
“The findings in this report reflect a true state of emergency,” said First District Supervisor Hilda L. Solis said in a statement. “In a civil society, it is unacceptable for any of us to not be profoundly disturbed by the shocking needs documented in this year’s homeless mortality report.”
According to the study, young people, Latinos, and homeless Blacks are the hardest hit by the increase in deaths.
Overall, deaths increased by more than 105% among 18- to 29-year-olds, 69% among Latinos, and 58% among Blacks.
Nearly 200 more homeless blacks died in the year after the pandemic began than in the year before, while there were 334 more deaths among Latinos.
Although California has the largest homeless population in the country — estimated at 161,000 people — the situation is a reflection of the problem of access to medical care during the pandemic, which in many cases exacerbated clinical pictures of mental illness. In fact, according to the 2020 homeless count mandated by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, nearly a quarter of the homeless in California suffer from severe mental illness.
Also, according to authorities, the pandemic likely exacerbated an already growing addiction problem fueled by the prevalence of fentanyl, the Associated Press reported. Methamphetamine was implicated in most deaths, at 75 percent, about the same as the previous year. But fentanyl’s involvement in overdose deaths nearly doubled to 45 percent, according to the report.
“The Covid-19 pandemic’s impact on people experiencing homelessness has clearly extended beyond the immediate effects of this new and deadly virus,” said Los Angeles Public Health Director Barbara Ferrer. “The pandemic has exacerbated stressors already burdening this vulnerable population.”