When Covid-19 struck, the US was already in a growing overdose crisis. It’s only gotten worse since then.
According to the Wall Street Journal, counties in states spanning the country from Washington to Arizona and Florida are reporting rising drug deaths this year. This follows a likely record number of fatal overdoses in the US last year, which killed more than 72,000 people, according to federal projections.
The pandemic has destabilized people trying to maintain sobriety or who are struggling with addiction at a time of increasing social isolation and stress, according to treatment providers and health officials. In a survey of adults in the United States published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 13% of respondents in June said they started or increased substance use in order to deal with stress or emotions related to Covid-1
The drug deaths add to the number of pandemics, which include more than 188,000 infection-related deaths, but also other deaths related to factors such as health care disruptions and economic upheaval.
“It’s a pretty dire reality here,” said David Sternberg, clinical services manager at HIPS, a Washington, DC nonprofit group that helps drug users stay safe and find treatment. “We lost a lot of customers, a lot of patients.”
In addition, socially distant restrictions make it difficult to treat people struggling with addiction and organizations that provide services to them.
Benjamin Kief died of an opioid overdose on April 7 in his car in West Chester, Pennsylvania. After serving time on suspended sentence, the 30-year-old left a state prison in late March when the pandemic broke out. He had trouble getting an appointment with a recovery coach, said his mother Mary Kief. He also wanted to attend the Narcotics Anonymous meetings, but they did not meet in person because he ordered at home and online video meetings made him anxious, she said.
“We had all drawn up these plans,” said Ms. Kief. But because of the pandemic, she said, “He didn’t have the resources.”
According to drug providers, the federal government helped with the pandemic by easing restrictions to make it easier to access addiction drugs remotely and using telemedicine to reach people in need where possible. However, people in recovery often also rely on personal support services like group meetings, proponents say.
The journal asked the 50 largest counties of the population for information on overdoses this year upon request for data and public records. Of the 30 that provided numbers, 21 had overdose deaths that were up from the previous year. Among the other jurisdictions, some had prepandemic data only, and some said overdose values were flat or tended to be lower.
The data on federal overdose have not yet caught up with the pandemic months.
Counties in Nevada, California, Ohio, Indiana, Minnesota, and Michigan are growing. Authorities in other locations, including traditional hotspots for opioid deaths like parts of Appalachia and New England, are also reporting more drug deaths.
The spread of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid, and the increased use of methamphetamines contributed to the worsening of the pre-pandemic overdose problem. Many counties and states say the pandemic increases the threat from these drugs.
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The Southern Nevada Health District, which covers Clark County, including Las Vegas, said fentanyl caused an 8% increase in fatal overdoses in the first half of this year. Authorities in San Diego also said fentanyl is killing more people there.
In Los Angeles County, the country’s most populous overdose, overdoses rose 48% to 247 in the first month and a half of the pandemic, compared to the same period last year, said Gary Tsai, interim director of substance abuse prevention and control for the county public health department.
“They’re inside, they’re stressed, maybe they lost a job or a family member,” Tsai said of the added stressors some drug users experience.
Early numbers show that the number of overdoses in Franklin County, Ohio, which includes Columbus, reached 580 by the end of August, said Anahi Ortiz, coroner. That is almost the total amount reported for 2019.
“I don’t think it would have been such a high number if Covid-19 hadn’t hit us,” said Dr. Ortiz. “We’re seeing a lot more relapses.”
Suspected overdoses rose nearly 18% after home-stay contracts were completed across the country in mid-March, compared to what happened in early 2020 before the pandemic broke out. This is based on data from the overdose detection applicationProgram that collects overdose numbers nationwide in real time.
Opioid users are usually discouraged from using medication on their own, as it increases the risk that they could die without someone nearby resuscitating them with an overdose reversal drug such as naloxone.
Tanna Welch’s 35-year-old daughter Holly Carver died of a fentanyl overdose in late April while she was alone in her room in a group home outside of Seattle, Ms. Welch said. The mother of three had completed a treatment program in February. But she struggled with drug use for years, in part to treat untreated mental illness, and the combination of her self-medication, the dangers of fentanyl, and the pandemic proved overwhelming.
“There were three converging storms and it was just too much for them,” said Ms. Welch.
Shannon Hicks, head of the West Virginia harm reduction group, said she saw an increase in overdoses.
“When Covid hit, nobody was allowed to touch anyone, nobody was allowed to see anyone,” said Ms. Hicks. “The worst thing for someone who messes with drugs is to be isolated.”
The pandemic has also disrupted supplies of illicit drugs flowing up from the U.S.-Mexico border, possibly because border traffic restrictions make it difficult for traffickers to move products unobtrusively, according to the Drug Enforcement Administration. These supply disruptions can increase the risk for users looking for new dealers and buying unfamiliar products.
“You can’t get the drug you’re used to, so get your hands on everything you can,” said Gavin Bart, who heads the addiction medicine department at Hennepin Healthcare, a Minneapolis safety net hospital.
The deepening drug crisis is particularly significant to proponents who celebrated a slight decline in drug deaths in 2018. This marked the first time in nearly three decades that the US death toll had not increased. In the last decade alone, overdoses have killed more than half a million Americans.
“I feel like all of the work we’ve done to reduce overdose was just thrown out the window,” said Jess Tilley, co-founder of harm reduction group HRH413 in western Massachusetts.
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