Pima County death report is a mixed bag, some good news, some bad news

Published: May. 30, 2023 at 9:13 PM MST
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TUCSON, Ariz. (13 News) - For the 13th year, the Pima County Medical Examiner, Dr. Gregory Hess, has released the annual death report.

It shows how many people died in the county last year and how they died. He also adds other southern Arizona counties such as Santa Cruz, Cochise and Greenlee among others.

The report contains valuable information used by policymakers and health officials to determine where best to target education and financial resources to cut down on the number of preventable deaths.

The biggest category of preventable deaths is generally drug overdoses which the increased use of fentanyl has exacerbated, although methamphetamine deaths by overdose are not far behind.

But there is some good news on that front. There seems to be some progress in preventing overdose deaths among teenagers.

“We went from fentanyl being the leading cause of death among minors in 2021, to it then decreased all the way down from 21 deaths to eight deaths from one year to the next,” said Mark Person, the manager for the Pima County Mental Health and Addiction Program.

About the report, he said, “My main takeaway is we’ve had some small victories and they’re important to celebrate.”

The other small victory is the number of overdose deaths, while still unacceptably high, has stabilized over the past two years at just under 500 deaths.

“Certainly this is more reassuring that another 125, you know, drug overdose-related deaths but still compared to three, four or five years ago, these are very high numbers,” said Dr. Matt Heinz, the District 2 County Supervisor. “We have a long ways to go.”

Person agrees that the numbers are too high but believes it’s significant that the numbers have stabilized this year and have dropped among teens.

“So the years of potential lives lost that were saved is a big win.” he said. “You know it’s not a big number if you compare it to the annual ones but if you look at that age group (13-19), that is a major success.”

But a big loss comes on the other side of the generational scale. Suicides were up significantly in most age groups but were especially acute in those 70 years of age and older.. likely linked to the lingering effects of the pandemic.

“The more isolated you are, the more likely you are to start experiencing some of those negative thoughts, quality of life goes down,” Person said. “You don’t have that positive support.”

The number of people who used drugs to commit suicide doubled from year to year, but still, far and away, the leading cause of suicide in Pima County is firearms. Two out of three gun deaths in the county were suicides, likely in part because guns are easily accessible.

“That is part of it, the availability of these weapons,” Heinz said.

But he also believes it’s the weapon of choice because it’s likely one that is more lethal.

“Things look that bad that you reach for a pill or you reach for a rope or you reach for a handgun,” he said. “And like the handgun almost always gets the job done.”

And he added, “No time for therapy, no time for counseling, you’re just a number for the next county report.”

There were other surprises as well. The number of pedestrians killed jumped by nearly 30% and 78% of those who died had drugs in their system and most were not in a crosswalk.

That has been an ongoing battle for years.

And in a relatively new category, the number of people who died from heat-related illnesses nearly tripled year to year. It’s thought one contributing factor is that more and more people are homeless and living without shelter.

“We had some of those small success stories but we have a long ways to go,” Person said. “And a lot of work to do.”

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