Kevin Kiley: “San Francisco had twice as many overdose deaths as COVID last year.”
PolitiFact’s decision: True
Here’s why: San Francisco’s early and dramatic response to the coronavirus last year earned it praise as a model for fighting the pandemic. But did the city also see a spike in fatal overdoses during this period that far outpaced COVID-19 deaths?
Rocklin Republican MP Kevin Kiley said so on social media this week.
“San Francisco had twice as many overdose deaths as COVID in the past year. This true state of emergency has met with political indifference, if not encouragement,” Kiley wrote on Twitter on April 26.
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Kiley has filed numerous legal suits against Governor Gavin Newsom over the past year, alleging the Democrat and former mayor of San Francisco exceeded his authority during the pandemic.
We decided to review the first part of his claim, which was posted on Twitter and shared more than 2,000 times in two days.
Did Kiley get his numbers right? Data from the city health department and medical examiner’s office support his case.
How many people died of COVID-19 in San Francisco in 2020?
San Francisco was the first city in the country to declare a coronavirus emergency in February 2020, weeks before other major metropolitan areas. The response contributed to San Francisco having one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates among major cities early last fall.
At the end of September, there were an average of 12 coronavirus deaths per 100,000 people in San Francisco. The next lower city, Seattle, had nearly three times as many deaths on average, according to Healthline.com, a health news and information website.
By the end of last year, San Francisco, home to nearly 875,000 people, had recorded 257 deaths from the virus, according to the city’s health department. That number rose rapidly this winter as the virus rose in California and many parts of the country. According to the latest data, since the beginning of the pandemic, it stands at 531.
But in that relative success, have overdose deaths dwarfed the San Francisco COVID-19 death toll, as Kiley claimed?
More:Opinion: Opioid overdose deaths are on the rise. Police work is not the answer.
A look at San Francisco’s 2020 overdose deaths
We asked Joshua Hoover, Kiley’s chief of staff, to provide evidence to support the lawmaker’s testimony. He pointed to a recent New York Times article that estimated the number of overdose deaths in San Francisco at 713 last year, more than double the 257 deaths from COVID-19.
While the article doesn’t point to a specific source, we found a report from the San Francisco Office of the Chief Medical Examiner that more than confirms Kiley’s claim.
The report listed 697 accidental overdose deaths from January to December 2020. The dates are described as preliminary.
Still, that number is more than two and a half times the number of COVID-19 deaths in San Francisco last year. According to the Times article, it’s three times the city’s total as of 2017.
What caused San Francisco’s surge in overdose deaths?
San Francisco health officials said two key factors have caused the surge in overdose deaths: the spread of the powerful opioid fentanyl in the city and the isolation and despair caused by the pandemic.
“These deaths were on the rise before the Covid pandemic. But much about the pandemic really affected our ability to fight them,” said Margot Kushel, professor of medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. “There is no question that we are losing far too many people to this preventable cause of death.”
Kristen Marshall is a project manager for the Drug Overdose Prevention and Education Project, a city-funded program that coordinates San Francisco’s response to overdose. She told the San Francisco Chronicle that the stay-at-home order caused people to use drugs alone, which can be more deadly than having someone use them under supervision.
“People at high risk went into isolation and that increased the risk. The chaos put people at higher risk,” she said. “The worst months were in the middle of summer when it was the most chaotic for this community.”
Kushel said communities can reduce overdose deaths by creating “safe injection sites” or places where people can inject drugs under the supervision of trained medical staff. These websites are legal in Canada, Europe, and Australia, but illegal in the US.
Lawyers say they offer professional oversight and the ability to connect people to treatment services. The California Senate passed SB 57 this month to launch a pilot program that will enable safe injection sites in San Francisco, Oakland and Los Angeles Counties. To become law, it would have to be approved by the State Assembly and Governor Gavin Newsom.
Kushel said communities can also reduce harm by offering drug tests to identify deadly opioids like fentanyl, which are often mixed into other drugs without a person’s knowledge.
Hoover, Kiley’s chief of staff, didn’t respond when asked what solutions lawmakers had for San Francisco or any other place grappling with the drug overdose crisis.
Rep. Kevin Kiley claimed San Francisco had twice as many overdose deaths as COVID-19 in the past year.
Data from the city health department and medical examiner’s office support lawmakers’ claim. It should be noted that San Francisco had one of the lowest COVID-19 death rates per capita of any major city.
Even so, city overdose deaths rose rapidly during the pandemic compared to previous years, reaching nearly 700, while the total number of coronavirus deaths was 257.
We took Kiley’s claim to be true.
Asm. Kevin Kiley, Tweet, April 26, 2021.
Joshua Hoover, Asm’s chief of staff. Kiley, email exchange, April 26, 2021.
Margot Kushel, video interview, professor of medicine at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center, April 26, 2021.
The San Francisco Department of Health, COVID-19 Cases and Deaths, accessed April 2021
San Francisco Medical Examiner’s Office, Accidental Overdose Death Report, February 17, 2021
The New York Times, San Francisco, is grappling with another type of epidemic: drug deaths, April 23, 2021.
Sfist, SF tripled the number of overdose deaths from COVID-19 in 2020, Jan. 15, 2021
Associated Press, California Senate OKs, monitored injection sites for drug users on April 23, 2021
Scott Wiener, San Francisco Chronicle, tries again to allow SF, Oakland, and LA to open a safe drug use website on December 7, 2020.
Fodors.com, How San Francisco Sustained a Low COVID-19 Rate, Feb. 1, 2021