August 21, 2020 / Modified aug 21, 2020 5:31 p.m.

Arizona’s opioid epidemic under COVID-19

Arizona 360 looks at how the state's ongoing opioid crisis has developed during the pandemic.

This week Arizona 360 took a closer look at how the state’s ongoing opioid epidemic has been impacted by the current COVID-19 pandemic. Data from the Pima County Health Department that shows a rise in fentanyl overdoses this year coincides with an increase in opioid seizures at ports of entry along Arizona’s border with Mexico. Seizures for heroin and fentanyl are up more than 20% and 40%, respectively, according to Customs and Border Protection. Lorraine Rivera discussed trends at the ports with CBP Director of Field Operations Guadalupe Ramirez.

“Because of the travel restrictions that we have, we see a lot more body carriers coming in with fentanyl strapped to their body,” Ramirez said. “Now what you’re seeing is an increase in American citizens. And I think that’s because the travel restriction is really focused on if you’re not a U.S. citizen or a legal permanent resident, you have to be traveling for essential purposes.”


International travel restrictions related to COVID-19 have had unintended consequences in communities like the city of Nogales that rely on cross-border travel to keep their economies afloat. Tony Paniagua met a furniture store owner who decided to close his family’s 40-year-old business as a result of the pandemic. He also spoke to Mayor Arturo Garino about challenges facing the city and how he views its path to recovery.


After cartels manage to get their drugs past the ports and Border Patrol checkpoints, Arizona’s highways and interstates lead to distribution hubs in Tucson and Phoenix. But the Pima County Sheriff Department’s Border Interdiction Unit provides another layer of defense. Through July of this year, the unit has already confiscated more than 95,000 fentanyl pills, nearly double the amount it seized for all of 2019. Arizona 360 heard from Criminal Investigations Division Capt. Jeffrey Palmer, who said the pandemic has done little to slow the flow of drugs into the county.


Fentanyl continues to kill residents in Pima County at a higher rate than last year, according to data from the Pima County Health Department. Through July, 87 people died from fentanyl overdoses. The county recorded 89 fatal fentanyl overdoses for all of 2019. It projects that number will top 150 by the end of 2020. Deadly overdoses from all drugs have been on an upward trajectory in Pima County since March, the same month when the pandemic entered the forefront. The timing likely isn’t a coincidence, as Arizona 360 heard from Todd Vanderah. Vanderah heads the University of Arizona Department of Pharmacology and serves as director for the UA’s new Comprehensive Pain and Addiction Center, which formed in response to the opioid epidemic.

“The last few months now we’ve actually seen more drug overdoses in the state of Arizona than we did at our peak in 2017,” Vanderah said. “And I think the increase is obviously due to the fact that this pandemic has resulted in social distancing, which I think is almost the opposite of what people who are using and misusing substances need. They actually need a support team. They need to reach out.”


The presumed victor of the race for Pima County attorney whose platform focused on criminal justice reform told Arizona 360 she sees her outsider status as a benefit when she takes office next year. Defense attorney Laura Conover runs unopposed this November and easily won her Democratic primary against two other candidates who currently work for the office. Arizona 360 learned more about how Conover plans to approach the role of Pima County’s top prosecutor, especially how she will handle drug-related cases.

“We have long known that we cannot rush to prosecute our way out of drug addiction and mental illness,” Conover said. “And when we choose treatment instead of jail at one-third of the cost, we’ve reframed that $40 million budget and we have the resources in play to go after those who are actually harming our community.”

Arizona 360
Arizona 360 airs Fridays at 8:30 p.m. on PBS 6 and Saturdays at 8 p.m. on PBS 6 PLUS. See more from Arizona 360.
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