Opioid Abuse Surged During the Pandemic – Treatment is the Answer for Those Now Addicted
The whole world watched many serious events unfold during the pandemic in 2020. The news covered little else. But one event that did not make headline news was the upsurge in what was already a serious epidemic – opioid addiction.
As Covid-19 spread across the United States in 2020, opioid addiction was also spreading and even found its way into areas not previously seriously affected. Life was tough for practically everyone, but the surges in opioid abuse and overdoses during the pandemic created multiple crisis-level problems for millions of Americans.
How did this happen? Many experts believe that economic shock, social isolation, an upending of day-to-day work and school schedules, a disruption of regular obligations and responsibilities, plus an uncertain future and increasing societal strife all played critical roles in pushing overdose deaths upwards during the Covid-19 pandemic.
A Year Characterized by Epidemics
A story out of Utah, a state that had previously avoided much of the opioid crisis, drives this point home. In fact, before 2020, local officials in Utah reported that what few opioid-related deaths the state was experiencing had been leveling off and even receding in many of the state’s counties. But that all changed when Covid hit, with Utah’s overdose rate rising sharply during 2020. Quoting one local official, Gabriela Murza, “Because it’s not only opioid use itself, it’s not only the taking of that prescription or that opioid. But it’s also the stress that came with COVID, the stress, the inability to maintain those close relationships, or even being able to go to recovery and support services, or be able to get the treatment that they needed. Even if it was virtual, that wasn’t available for everybody.”
The story from Utah is not unique. Not by a long shot. Across the nation, and especially in regions that seemed to be getting their opioid crises under control, 2020 brought a resurgence in overdose deaths. In fact, overdose deaths surged so much during the pandemic that 2020 reached the highest rate of drug overdoses ever recorded.
“There’s sort of a perfect storm of factors that we know increase drug use. People are more stressed and isolated, so they make unhealthy decisions, including drinking more and taking drugs. Physicians have been concentrating largely on COVID-19, and medical systems are overwhelmed, so people can’t always access the care they need...”
It’s not surprising that drug abuse (and the resulting overdose deaths) increased during the pandemic. Quoting Dr. William Stoops, a professor of behavioral science at the University of Kentucky, “There’s sort of a perfect storm of factors that we know increase drug use. People are more stressed and isolated, so they make unhealthy decisions, including drinking more and taking drugs. Physicians have been concentrating largely on COVID-19, and medical systems are overwhelmed, so people can’t always access the care they need. There’s also a stigma around substance use disorder that keeps people away from treatment, and even more so during a pandemic.”
Overdose Deaths Surged During the Pandemic
One organization, the Commonwealth Fund, graphed out an alarming correlation between surges in overdose deaths in the United States and the arrival of Covid-19 on U.S. soil. According to their reporting, “The most recent (CDC) data reflect September 2019 through August 2020. During that period, there were 88,295 predicted deaths, a record high that is almost 19,000 more deaths (27%) than the prior 12-month period. Using these predicted data in combination with final data from 2019, we estimated monthly overdose deaths from January to August 2020. Our estimates show that total overdose deaths spiked to record levels in March 2020 after the pandemic hit. Monthly deaths grew by about 50 percent between February and May to more than 9,000; they were likely still around 8,000 in August. Prior to 2020, U.S. monthly overdose deaths had never risen above 6,300.”
Though overdose deaths were already tracking upwards in the months leading up to the Covid-19 pandemic, there is reason to believe the pandemic exacerbated conditions for those addicted. The most notable spike in overdose deaths in 2020 occurred after Covid-19 arrived in the United States. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2020’s overdose deaths were the highest-ever recorded in the United States.
Experts believe that worsening conditions for addicts, due to the pandemic, led to riskier drug using behavior, which in turn led to a more pronounced spike in overdose deaths.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard. As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways…”
According to former CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield, “The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard. As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.” Addicts already live in constant danger of a fatal drug overdose. Imposing the harsh conditions of the pandemic and all of its societal, economic, and public health factors on addicts simply accelerated that danger.
Not surprisingly, the primary driver in surging overdose deaths was opioid drugs, or other drugs that were mixed with opioids. To that point, the CDC published its toxicology findings as follows:
- 37 of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions with available synthetic opioid data reported increases in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths.
- Eighteen of those jurisdictions reported that their increase in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths was over 50%.
- Ten states in the western part of the United States reported a shocking 98% increase in synthetic opioid-involved overdose deaths.
- The CDC also reported an increase in cocaine-related overdoses. During the pandemic, cocaine-related deaths went up about 26%, though it’s widely believed these deaths were caused by cocaine that had been mixed with synthetic opioids like fentanyl.
- Deaths involving methamphetamine also increased, by 34%. In this case too, most experts believed that the majority of those deaths also involved opioids.
The CDC was not the only authoritative source reporting on the surge in overdose deaths during Covid-19. The American Medical Association compiled a list of hundreds of reports from across the nation that all confirmed the same basic thesis. While there is no doubt that the addiction epidemic in the United States was a serious and growing problem before the Covid-19 pandemic, it does seem that the pandemic worsened conditions for addicts, making them more likely to experience an overdose.
Treatment is the Answer
Now that the country is starting to open up again, addicts and their families should take the opportunity to seek treatment immediately. Though Covid-19 will likely fade into the backdrop due to the efforts of many, addiction will not so easily go away. If you or someone you care about is using opioids or any other mind-altering drug for that matter, use the reopening of America as an added incentive to get help at a qualified drug and alcohol addiction treatment center.