COVID-19 Pandemic May be Behind the Spike in Overdose Deaths

With the rapid invasion of COVID-19, lockdowns were implemented to prevent any further spread of the virus. It was anticipated that the quarantine would make people in recovery more vulnerable to relapsing. However, the sheer number of overdoses that are occurring has surprised even recovery experts. The quarantine meant to keep the virus at bay also caused a spike in overdose deaths. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep across the U.S., an epidemic has begun to surge in its wake. Drug overdose deaths have risen dramatically in the U.S. ever since the nationwide lockdown began in March.  And just as with COVID-19, all corners of the nation are affected by this drug epidemic.

Lockdowns and Overdose Deaths

The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP) is a federal initiative aimed at collecting quantitative data from hospitals and police across the U.S. The program detected a 191 percent increase in overdoses from January-April 2020 compared to January-April 2019. This increase began when the first COVID-19 cases were being found in the U.S. and they have only continued to grow. As a result, ODMAP has analyzed this data as a national health emergency within COVID-19. As people struggle with substance use disorders of all kinds, there is one common truth that has always helped them while they are in recovery — “addiction is a disease of isolation.” Rehab, group counseling, and meetings eat away at that isolation, However, the lockdowns to prevent COVID-19’s spread are now building up that isolation again.

With the closing of AA meetings, support groups, and even large gatherings of friends, people who struggle with substance use disorder are left to fend for themselves. As COVID-19 continues to infect and cause stress on people’s way of life, this is a critical reason why the country is seeing a huge spike in overdose deaths. In an even crueler twist, the services that hospitals would normally give to people who have overdosed have been marshaled to treat thousands of COVID-19 patients.

An article in the Harvard Medical School Health Blog looks at the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and the added danger it has for those with a substance use disorder.

“As a consequence, police have been finding people dead in their apartments. When people do call 911, the health care system is overloaded, and first responders may arrive more slowly. We know that starting addiction treatment in the ED can help prevent relapse, but right now emergency room doctors are absolutely overwhelmed with COVID-19 cases and might not have the time or resources available to start addiction medications following an overdose.”

As hospitals and first responders are overloaded with treating COVID-19, reaction times to helping victims of drug overdoses has slowed down to a deadly pace.  

Solutions to the Drug Overdose Crisis

Exacerbating the overdose epidemic is the faltering economy. During the initial lockdown,  U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Alex Azar wrote about how unemployment affects the health of people with substance use disorder.

“Estimates suggest that each one percentage point increase in the unemployment rate translates into a 1 percent increase in suicide deaths and a more than 3 percent increase in opioid deaths, which means this virus-induced recession will likely cause tens of thousands of excess deaths.”

There have been attempts to mitigate the damage by using the internet. AA meetings are being held via Zoom and therapists are meeting with patients over the phone. The Drug Enforcement Administration has also passed rules and guidelines allowing over-the-phone evaluations for prescribing drugs to help patients during social isolation. The American Medical Association states that the new rules are essential in all states.

“Governors must adopt the new SAMHSA (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration) and DEA rules and guidance in full for the duration of the national emergency — this includes flexibility for evaluation and prescribing requirements using telemedicine …”

These rules are major steps toward helping those who struggle with addiction during times like these. By helping to remove the red tape and barriers of drug treatment, doctors look forward to being able to provide more treatment than even before COVID-19 began. Just as we begin to learn about ways to prevent and adapt to a global pandemic, organizations and rehab centers are learning how to improve the ways they serve their patients.  

Looking Forward

The nation’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic has caused a spike in overdose deaths to the point of a national health emergency. Many people struggling with addictions have been put at significant risk for overdosing due to the stress and isolation caused by the nationwide lockdown. As businesses begin to open around the country, a surge in new COVID-19 cases is taking place. With hospitals becoming overloaded again, the medical response to overdoses has lagged, resulting in a higher mortality rate. However, there have been improvements. Recovery services, counselors, practitioners, and therapists have adapted to the social distancing and quarantine standards that have affected how they provide services to their patients. By communicating online or over the phone, people have opportunities to meet virtually and recover at home.

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