‘The Drug Became His Friend’: Pandemic Drives Hike in Opioid Deaths

In the months since the pandemic took hold in the U.S., the opioid epidemic has taken a sharp turn for the worse. More than 40 states have seen increases in overdoses.

Family and friends mourned Jefrey Scott Cameron, who died of an accidental overdose earlier this year, in Barre, Vt.Credit…

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By Hilary Swift and Abby Goodnough

Photographs by Hilary Swift

BARRE, Vermont — On the first Friday in June, Jefrey Cameron, 29, left his home around midnight to buy heroin. He had been struggling with addiction for seven years but had seemingly turned a corner, holding down a job that he loved at Basil’s Pizzeria, driving his teenage sister to the mall to go shopping and sharing a home with his grandmother. But then the coronavirus pandemic hit.

When he returned home that night and tried the product, it was so potent that he fell and hit his head in the bathroom. Mr. Cameron texted a friend soon after, saying that he had messed up and would go to a 12-step meeting with a friend that weekend.

“I promise I’m good and I can’t get in any more trouble tonight,” he wrote. “Sweet dreams, if you wake up before you hear from me definitely call me. The sooner I get up and into town the better.” When Mr. Cameron woke up, he used the rest of the powder — largely fentanyl, not heroin, his family would later learn — from a small bag with a bunny stamped on it. Less than five hours after he sent the text, his grandmother found him dead.

In the six months since Covid-19 brought the nation to a standstill, the opioid epidemic has taken a sharp turn for the worse. More than 40 states have recorded increases in opioid-related deaths since the pandemic began, according to the American Medical Association. In Arkansas, the use of Narcan, an overdose-reversing drug, has tripled. Jacksonville, Fla., has seen a 40 percent increase in overdose-related calls. In March alone, York County in Pennsylvania recorded three times more overdose deaths than normal.

For Mr. Cameron, the shutdown of daily life in the spring not only led him back to drugs, but led him to use alone — an especially dangerous proposition.

“Usually he would use with somebody, especially if it’s a different dealer or different batch,” said his mother, Tara Reil. “I don’t think he had that person to use with, to have that safety net.”

Mr. Cameron lived in East Barre, a tiny town about 20 minutes outside of the state capital, Montpelier. He drove a red Subaru Legacy, had a pet snake named Lucy and was passionate about making food for others. For two days after he died, the pizza shop he worked for closed its doors; now his pictures plaster the windows and customers can buy car decals, T-shirts and bracelets made in his memory.

When Vermont shut down in March, so did Mr. Cameron’s job, which provided his biggest support network. He was lonely and had money to spare: the $600 per week he received in extra unemployment benefits from the federal government was more than he earned from his job.

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