Isolation May Lead to an Increase in Opioid Deaths

Family isolated at home

A recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report showed that opioid overdose deaths spiked in Chicago, Illinois, during a Covid-19 lockdown in March, April, and May of 2020. The deeper problem behind the story is that extended periods of isolation may lead to an increase in overdose deaths among addicts.

While lockdowns were necessary to slow the spread of Covid-19, public health officials, policymakers, community members, civic leaders, and families MUST be prepared to provide essential help and support to their communities during a lockdown. Furthermore, as surging opioid overdoses act as a grim reminder that any day could be an addict’s last, those who struggle with addiction must be assisted in finding and getting into effective drug treatment centers as soon as possible.

The CDC Reports on a Spike in Overdose Deaths During a Covid-19 Lockdown

According to a March 2021 report published by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the number of people dying from opioid overdoses in Chicago’s Cook County increased by more than 20% in 2020.

Over the two years before the pandemic, about 23 people died per week from drug overdoses in Cook County. But in 2020, that number increased to 35 deaths per week, with the most significant spikes in deaths occurring during lockdown months.

“Whether the observed increase during the stay-at-home order was a continuation of increases beginning in the weeks before the stay-at-home order or a spike temporarily associated with the stay-at-home order is unclear. The average number of deaths still stayed above pre-2020 levels after the order was lifted…”

It’s crucial to understand that there isn’t a direct cause-and-effect relationship between the lockdowns and spiking overdose deaths, as the upward trend in overdose deaths in Cook County began before the first lockdown. Quoting the researchers cited earlier, “Whether the observed increase during the stay-at-home order was a continuation of increases beginning in the weeks before the stay-at-home order or a spike temporarily associated with the stay-at-home order is unclear. The average number of deaths still stayed above pre-2020 levels after the order was lifted. This is concerning because it might indicate an overall persistent upward trend in overdose deaths as reported by CDC, using nationwide data, for the last quarter of 2019.”

There are several contributing factors to the documented increases in overdose deaths during the pandemic. For one, the pandemic caused disruptions in the illicit drug supply, putting addicts at an increased risk of overdose (particularly as their tolerance may have dropped due to the disruption in supply). Addicts were also more likely to try other drug substances and to substitute more potent drugs such as fentanyl for their opioid of choice. Furthermore, addicts had less access to treatment services during the lockdown, making it more difficult for them to receive help should they reach for it.

Finally, addicts were more likely to be alone for long periods, further increasing risk. Most overdose fatalities occur when a drug user is on their own, when no one is nearby to respond to their overdose.

Looking at the Bigger Picture – How Isolation is Both a Symptom and a Consequence of Addiction

Crying alone

The most effective way to help drug and alcohol addicts is to understand the intricacies of addiction. The Covid-19 pandemic made it painfully clear just how harmful it is for addicts to be isolated, as the pandemic led to the following:

  • More personal crises and fewer people to talk to/seek help from.
  • Disruptions to drug supply chains, causing addicts to seek alternative, potentially more dangerous drugs.
  • Long periods spent without drugs, reduced tolerance to drugs, and increased chances for an overdose as a result.
  • Inhibited access to drug treatment and other public health services.
  • Increased isolation, an inherent and harmful symptom and consequence of addiction.

When people cannot find ways to tackle their life problems in a healthy manner, they may spiral into isolation and refuse contact with those who might help them with their problems. This often leads to self-destructive coping mechanisms like using drugs or alcohol.

To complicate the crisis, as addiction develops as a consequence of isolation, isolation then also becomes a symptom of addiction. Someone who is using drugs and alcohol does not usually want to be around other people, especially those friends and family members who want nothing more but to see him get better and stop using harmful substances.

After Lockdowns Subside, Isolation for Those Addicted Will Still Continue On

Although isolation for most Americans will fall away when lockdowns recede as the Covid-19 pandemic is brought under control, this particular phenomenon of isolation will, unfortunately, continue for those addicted. Addicts will continue to isolate themselves to some extent since isolation is almost always an inherent aspect of addiction.

For these reasons, it is important to focus on more than just bringing the Covid-19 pandemic under control. If there’s anything the pandemic has taught the American people, it’s that there are many public health crises in the United States that do not receive significant attention.

The isolating characteristic of addiction is just one issue, both a symptom and a consequence, of addiction. This aspect of addiction must be addressed quickly, as the isolating tendencies of addicts can lead to overdose deaths.

People Who Struggle with Addiction Should Get Help as Soon as Possible

Helping an addict

In its very nature, drug and alcohol addiction tends to push individuals to the fringe of society. Addicts often feel as though they must isolate themselves and hide their drug use or their alcohol misuse so that no one will ever find out about it. In so doing, they often end up distancing themselves from their loved ones, even cutting ties with family and friends.

People who are struggling with addiction, who are isolating themselves from their family members and loved ones, need to learn how to reestablish connections with those they care about most (and those who care about them, too). Sadly, reestablishing connections is a skill that addicts often lack. That’s why it’s so important for those who struggle with addiction to enter into drug and alcohol rehab centers as soon as possible.

A qualified, reputable, residential drug treatment center should possess the tools to help teach a recovering addict how to reestablish connections with their loved ones. The story out of Chicago is a heartbreaking but very real example of how addicts are constantly on a knife’s edge and how just one additional crisis or hardship (like the Covid-19 pandemic) can push them over the edge to an overdose.

Those who are currently struggling with an addiction to drugs and alcohol should seek help at a treatment center before it is too late. And their family members, loved ones, friends, and community members should help them get into such a center.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, RAS, MCAP, LCDC-I



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.