Mendocino, Humboldt, and Trinity Counties have been in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic since March, and the three have lost a total of 52 residents to COVID-19. Compounding the tragedy, 99 residents of the Emerald Counties have also succumbed to overdoses, and 63 have committed suicide.
Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall characterized the overwhelming majority of these losses as “preventable deaths.” He described a “preventable death” as a death in which the circumstances could have been avoided.
Using Sheriff Kendall’s working definition, deaths from COVID-19, overdoses, suicides, and homicides could be characterized as “preventable deaths.”
Collaborating with Trinity County Sheriff Tim Saxon, Humboldt County Sheriff’s Public Information Officer Samantha Karges, and Sheriff Kendall, data regarding the last three years worth of preventable deaths was gathered and analyzed for trends.
Garnering data from each Emerald County provides insight into each county’s relationship with preventable deaths. Mendocino County has seen a steady increase in both suicides and overdoses since 2018. Trinity County has also seen a rise in overdoses but has not experienced an increase in suicides. In contrast to Mendocino and Trinity, Humboldt County overdose deaths have decreased from last year, with 2019’s 72 deaths outpacing this year’s 51.
Comparing the four identified forms of preventable death reveals that overdoses and suicides surpass COVID-19 in total avoidable deaths.
Sheriff Kendall provided another metric that provided insight into a rise in preventable deaths: coroner investigations. He explained that coroners are tasked with investigating all “unexpected deaths,” and the average year has “about 300 cases.” In 2020, Mendocino County Sheriff Coroners investigated 461 unexpected deaths.
On December 17, 2020, the Center for Disease Control issued an advisory alerting the public to the “substantial increases in drug overdose deaths across the United States, primarily driven by rapid increases in overdose deaths involving… illicitly manufactured fentanyl.” The CDC found a “concerning acceleration” of overdose deaths was documented between March and May 2020, coinciding with “the implementation of widespread mitigation measures for the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Mendocino County Sheriff Matt Kendall spoke to the local rise of fentanyl and its role in the dramatic upswing in overdoses compared to years past. In a message to residents he published on Facebook, he said, “I fear overdoses will increase, and we may see more unintended exposures to the drug, to persons who are helping victims.”
Sheriff Kendall expressed gratitude for Mendocino County Public Health and its provision of Narcan to sheriff deputies, a drug that reverses the effects of opioid overdoses. He said that there would have been at least 12 more overdose deaths in the county without the life-saving drug.
Sheriff Kendall explained how coroner investigators could differentiate between suicide and an overdose. He said that a suicidal individual would often leave behind a note or communicate with someone their intentions. A tell-tale sign of a fatal accidental overdose is a small amount of drugs left over the user had intended to consume later but never did, Kendall explained.
In a September presentation to the Board of Supervisors, Mendocino County’s Behavioral Health Director Doctor Jenine Miller spoke to a mantra of mental anguish she had heard from residents: “We may be surviving, but we are no longer living.” Dr. Miller asserted that as the community navigates the COVID-19 pandemic, a mental health pandemic has been brewing.
Mendocino County Public Health Officer Doctor Andy Coren addressed the rise in overdoses and suicides in Mendocino County: “We have lost 26 lives in our community to COVID-19, and we have also lost several other valuable lives to this pandemic due to suicide and overdose.”
Dr. Coren emphasized the importance of not pitting one form of preventable death against others:
“We never want to disregard one tragedy when we attempt to address the other. Public Health is extremely concerned about both trends and it is Public Health’s job to are focus specifically on giving the public we serve the tools they need to slow the spread of COVID-19, while we also work very closely with Mendocino County Behavioral Health & Recovery Services, who is working hard to give the public the tools they need to address depression and substance abuse during these unprecedented times.”
Dr. Coren explained that Public Health and Behavioral Health work together to “provide comprehensive assistance and guidance to tackle both of these issues together.”
In a call to action, Dr. Coren insisted that residents “ pay special attention to our loved ones’ and to our own emotional wellbeing. Send a text, make a call, have dinner with a friend over video chat.”
Dr. Coren reminded Mendocino County residents that, “if you or someone you love is having a difficult time, please call Behavioral Health’s free Warm Line at (707) 472-2311 to speak with a certified counselor, or to be connected with additional resources.”
For any Humboldt County resident in emotional pain, the county’s Behavioral Health department encourages you to call the Peer-Run Warm Line at 1-855-845-7415 for non-emergency emotional support.
For Trinity County residents, please reach out to Behavioral Services 24-Hour Crisis Services to seek help by calling (530) 623-5708.