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Washington Poison Center Reports Increased Opioid Exposures During COVID-19

116 cases in 2020 involved accidents in children ages 0-5 years

Published on March 22, 2021

In a new data dashboard, the Washington Poison Center (WAPC) notes a 3.6% increase (1,464 to 1,516 cases) in overall opioid exposures, as well as increases among specific age groups, substances, and exposure reasons. These trends are particularly relevant amidst concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on behavioral and mental health, which has compounded repercussions from the ongoing opioid epidemic and mental health crises facing Washington communities.

The majority of opioid exposures were intentional:

  • In 2020, 57% of cases in 13-20-year-olds (93 out of 164 cases) were due to suicide/self-harm.
  • 67% of cases among adults 21-59 years (583 out of 865 cases) were intentional in 2020. The greatest increase in exposure reasons from 2019 was in cases of abuse (28%).
  • Cases involving fentanyl increased 59% from 2019 (37 to 59 cases). Two cases resulted in death, and 15 resulted in major effects (i.e., life-threatening and/or severe long-term effects).

Certain age groups experienced high rates of accidental exposures:

  • 116 cases in 2020 involved accidents in children ages 0-5 years. Many of these cases were due to opioids left unsecured, within sight and/or reach of the child.
  • In 2020, 148 cases in adults ages 60+ years were due to therapeutic (i.e., medication) errors. Therapeutic errors accounted for over half (51%) of cases in this age group, and increased 19% from 2019.

Rural counties continued to experience high rates of opioid adverse events, including suicide/self-harm, abuse, misuse, and therapeutic errors. Potential reasons are numerous, including fewer healthcare services, limited access to resources or treatment, greater repercussions from the COVID-19 pandemic, and/or higher utilization of the WAPC as an emergency service.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, practicing safety and harm reduction is essential:

  • Store opioids out of children’s sight and reach.
  • Lock up opioids to prevent accidents and intentional use by others.
  • Dispose of leftover, unneeded, or unwanted opioids. Find a secure return location at
  • Carry Naloxone if you or people you know use opioids.
  • Call the WAPC (1-800-222-1222) with questions about safety, or if an emergency occurs. Call 9-1-1 if you suspect overdose.
Associate Writer