In 2018 every day, 128 people died after overdosing on opioids. The total economic burden from the opioid epidemic, only with prescription opioids, was $78.5 billion per year.
The costs included health care, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement. The consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic, state-wide lockdowns, massive job loss, and government intervention contributed to more opioid users dying of an overdose.
Some local health authorities reported that the number of new opioid users might not have increased; however, more people were using alone, making it less likely for someone to help them if they overdose. Numerous counties in different states reported increases in opioid-related deaths and calls to emergency services.
The other significant consequence of the pandemic was the reduction in treatment facility populations and limited admission. State health restrictions and government intervention, along with social distancing, reduced treatment options for addicts.
Treatment centers across the nation have had to turn people away. As the restrictions begin to ease and states take steps to restart the economy, the reality of the increase in deaths of despair will start to hit home. These are deaths that are associated with mental health and economic factors and related drug and alcohol use.
In a report published by Well Being Trust; Peterson, Steve, et al. 2020, more Americans could lose their lives to deaths of despair because of the COVID-19 recession.
The opioid epidemic was already a national crisis; however, the numbers from the past few years indicated it had tapered off. Most people who became addicted to opioids became hooked through taking a prescription. Although, it has been a variety of opioids from pain medication, heroin, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
In early March, when many of the lockdowns were taking place, counties began to see an uptick in overdose and emergency calls related to opioids. The presence of fentanyl in cocaine had a significant role in this. However, current opioid users were using alone and had nowhere to reach out to for help. Overall, the people who were already vulnerable were made even more vulnerable due to the pandemic.
The border closures and travel restrictions because of the pandemic likely disrupted the illegal drug markets — however, I find it difficult to believe that drug cartels stop finding ways to smuggle drugs into the country. Anyways, this was part of the argument used to increase harm reduction, relax prescribing restrictions, and increase pain medication production.
Medication-assisted treatment patients are being sent home with 28-day supplies of methadone, while others are being prescribed opioids to avoid withdrawal. Some drug users have reverted to heroin, methamphetamine, or other substitutes. People who were struggling with drug dependency were also at increased risk because of reduced access to legal drugs within some states. However, harm reduction organizations and advocates got what they wanted, which was easier access to methadone and buprenorphine.
The American Medical Association released an Issue Brief regarding reports of increases in opioid-related overdose deaths. Madison County, Alabama, saw a spike in overdose deaths; Arizona saw an increase in the rate of relapse among recovering opioid addicts.
Overdose rates increased in California, people in Colorado were struggling with addiction in quarantine, and Florida saw spikes in fake pills laced with fentanyl. Reports and news feeds were gathered from 30 different states regarding opioids.
As states begin to lift restrictions and people gradually get back to work, how many of these problems will linger over the coming months or years. What avenues are state and federal health authorities going to take to help people struggling with opioid addiction? It has been clear that harm reduction is the recurring answer.
Yet, what about those individuals that do not want methadone, buprenorphine, or more drugs. What new options are given to them, is more medication going to be thrust upon them or will more treatment beds be made available. Are some of these opioid users going to be allowed to become completely drug-free or caught up in the revolving cycle of addiction and harm reduction?
The pandemic has impacted Americans in every way imaginable, and it will take years to collect the data surrounding the aftermath. As of right now, treatment providers need to keep reaching out, especially as restrictions are eased, and people are returning to a routine. Lives can still be saved, and opioid addiction treated, and now is the time to pick up the pace.
Nickolaus Hayes is a health care professional in the field of substance abuse and addiction recovery. He utilizes his experience in his writing to provide an expert viewpoint. His primary focus is spreading awareness by educating individuals on the topics surrounding substance abuse. He is a featured author of the health care website Addicted.org.