TRENTON – More than 3,000 New Jerseyans died in drug overdoses for the third consecutive year in 2020, although deaths didn’t surge as had been feared during the coronavirus pandemic.

Data released Thursday by state officials shows 3,046 people died due to suspected drug overdoses last year, up less than 1% from the 3,021 a year earlier. The highest total during the opioid epidemic remains the 3,118 who died in 2018.

Gov. Phil Murphy said “we did not see our worst fears come to pass.”

“Frankly given the headwinds of COVID-19, this I guess at one level we could say it could have been a lot worse,” Murphy said. “But let’s not forget the fact that those numbers translate into eight losses of life on average every single day.”

“We were extremely concerned that the emotional toll of this crisis would lead to a significant uptick in overdose deaths,” said Health Commissioner Judy Persichilli. “But we must stay vigilant. Three thousand forty-six lives lost is too many. One life lost to overdose is too many.”

The number of overdose deaths in New Jersey rose eight months in a row – beginning in November 2019, months before the pandemic even began.

That 16% increase was then followed by a six-month span across the second half of 2020 in which deaths were 12%, lower each month than the same month a year earlier. State officials made a number of changes, including making it easier for people to access treatment through telemedicine.

“Our combined efforts have shown real results,” said Attorney General Gurbir Grewal. “Against the backdrop of an anticipated nationwide increase in drug-related overdose deaths last year, New Jersey saw our numbers hold steady.”

The recent trend of improvements came to an end in the first few months of 2021. Murphy said that in January and February, there were 540 overdose deaths in the state, slightly more than the 536 in those months a year earlier – and nearly 100 more than the same two months in 2019.

Murphy endorsed a package of bills in the Legislature and touted around $10 million of drug-related initiatives in his proposed budget, including spending $6.8 million to make people with drug convictions eligible for income assistance.

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“It’s around 10 or 11 jumbo jets crashing every year,” said Sen. Joseph Vitale, D-Middlesex, of the yearly overdose death toll. “And if that happened every year, our response would be just outrageous. We would be exercised. We would put an end to it. We would put a stop to it.”

One third of counties in New Jersey set or tied records for drug-related deaths during the opioid epidemic: Atlantic, Bergen, Cape May, Morris, Somerset, Sussex and Warren counties.

Michael Symons is State House bureau chief for New Jersey 101.5. Contact him at

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