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Pandemic Drives 20% Spike in Overdose Deaths in New Jersey, Demands Urgent Response

New Jersey health officials are sounding the alarm about the state’s overdose crisis. Overdoses in New Jersey are up 20% so far this year compared to the same time period in 2019, Health Commissioner Judith Persichilli said Monday. So far, there have been 1,339 suspected overdose deaths this year. 

Statement from Dionna King, Vital Strategies Overdose Prevention Program’s New Jersey Director.  

“New Jersey’s 20% spike in overdose deaths shows what harm reduction advocates have feared: COVID-19 is shattering the fragile and short progress we’ve made against the overdose epidemic. States need to take urgent action to remove unnecessary barriers to treatment and harm reduction supplies that are leaving people who use drugs without access to life saving resources. Immediate action could include proven innovations like mail-order naloxone and expanding syringe access. Longer term, we need to dismantle harmful approaches that criminalize or moralize the medications and harm reduction services used to manage substance use disorder. COVID-19 revealed the failures of our healthcare system to provide accessible, equitable and affordable care, and the resulting tragedy and loss of life has been unfathomable. Everything must change.” 

Statement from Jenna Mellor, New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition.  

“It is upsetting but not surprising that overdose deaths have increased in New Jersey. People who use drugs and their families have been sounding the alarm since the pandemic started, calling for expanded harm reduction services. The state can and should do more to prevent overdose deaths, starting with expanding our naloxone standing order, getting syringe access programs up and running in every corner of the state, and making it easier to mail harm reduction supplies. We must also treat drug use as the community health issue it is, and stop drug-related arrests and incarcerations that fuel racial disparities and stigmatize our loved ones. New Jersey has the opportunity to become a national leader in preventing overdose deaths, but that will require state lawmakers to treat this issue with the urgency it deserves.” 

Statement from Rev. Dr. Charles F. Boyer, Founding Director, Salvation and Social Justice. 

“This report of increased overdose deaths is disturbing as it confirms more preventable deaths due to the failed drug war. Punitive drug laws dehumanize people – particularly Black people. The isolating effects of the pandemic exacerbate the pain and isolation many were already experiencing. The stigma and criminality of drug use unnecessarily pushes people into the shadows of despair with no help. We must transition from an oppressive criminal justice response to a compassionate public health approach. We must abolish the drug war in New Jersey, reaffirm people’s humanity, and save lives in the process.” 

About Vital Strategies 

Vital Strategies is a global health organization that believes every person should be protected by a strong public health system. We work with governments and civil society in 73 countries to design and implement evidence-based strategies that tackle their most pressing public health problems. Our goal is to see governments adopt promising interventions at scale as rapidly as possible.

To find out more, please visit or Twitter @VitalStrat.

About Vital Strategies’ Overdose Prevention Program

In November 2018, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $50 million investment to address the country’s overdose crisis. The initiative—a first-of-its-kind partnership between Vital Strategies, Pew Charitable Trusts, CDC Foundation, and Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health—is helping up to 10 states implement solutions over three years to strengthen and scale up evidence-based, data-driven interventions to reduce risks of overdose and save lives. 

Vital Strategies is funding and partnering with a range of New Jersey organizations, including the New Jersey Harm Reduction Coalition and Salvation and Social Justice.  

Vital Strategies has partnered with the Harm Reduction Coalition, Higher Ground Harm Reduction, and Reynold’s Health Strategies to create facts sheets and a resource page that address the unique needs of vulnerable communities at higher risk of getting COVID-19. The resources have been disseminated by harm reduction organizations and providers throughout the U.S. 

Media contacts:

Tony Newman 646-335-5384