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Some surprises found in Pima County’s 2020 report on deaths

Suicides dropped last year, despite stress brought on by the pandemic
Updated: May. 7, 2021 at 5:09 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (KOLD News 13) - The number of deaths increased in Pima County last year by about 3,000, which is not a surprise due to the pandemic.

What did come as a surprise was an 11% drop in suicides because most expected the number to increase. The stress of lost jobs, money problems and closed businesses was expected to increase suicides.

“The reason we did find that interesting, we too were wondering because there’s been a lot in the news about the relationship between the pandemic and suicides,” said Pima County Medical Examiner Dr. Gregory Hess. “But as least in Arizona, that didn’t bear out.”

Hess was so surprised by the drop in suicides that he checked with his colleagues in Maricopa County and found they had the same result. Over a three-year average, suicides dropped by 3%.

That wasn’t the only surprise. The number of drug overdoses increased 32% from 2019, led by a dramatic increase in fentanyl deaths.

The number of deaths from the deadly drug have increased from five in 2014 to 207 in 2020, a 4000% increase.

For the first time, fentanyl caused more accidental overdoses than any other drug.

“Sometimes people may not know they consuming fentanyl,” Hess said. “Because clearly drugs that people purchase clandestinely don’t come with ingredient labels.”

Another surprise was the number of undocumented people found dead in the desert, the second-highest number since 2000. The 220 bodies found in 2020 is only eclipsed by the 222 found in 2010.

“2020 was certainly a gold standard example of heat for a big chunk of the year,” he said. “So that was probably the single greatest contributing factor in that increase in 2020.”

What wasn’t a surprise in 2020 was a significant jump in the overall number of deaths, which increased by 26%.

In 2019, there were 10,713 deaths but in 2020, that jumped to 13,461.

“Some of the vulnerable populations saw COVID hit much harder,” he said. “You know nursing homes, people with other comorbidities because there was no immunity.”

Hess pointed out these are raw numbers that they produce every year. What they mean and how to use the data for strategies are left up to the organizations and political bodies.

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