Emerging research indicates that there has been a nationwide uptick in fatal overdoses since the coronavirus pandemic began. Recent data suggests that the increase is being caused by several factors – including increased social isolation, funding for treatment programs being spent elsewhere, and interruptions to normal drug supply chains that cause people to seek out unknown or untrustworthy new sources. Job losses, financial strain, and growing rates of anxiety and depression are also, unsurprisingly, involved in increasing ODs.
Although it is too early to get a complete picture – the CDC’s data collection runs behind by about a year –, figures compiled by the Washington Post using data from an overdose tracking system suggest that not only are overdose rates skyrocketing, but they also seem to be picking up steam as the pandemic wears on.
Overdoses on the Rise
The early evidence suggests that overdoses increased by 18 percent compared with March of last year; 29 percent by April, and 42 percent by May. These figures are especially disheartening as 2018 marked the first year in over two decades that the country experienced a slight drop in ODs.
This small but notable progress appears to be disintegrating as the virus rages. And some places are being hit worse than others – in Milwaukee county, calls reporting overdoses have jumped by more than 50 percent.
When the national shutdowns and stay-at-home orders began, many researchers expected a drop in ODs as normal supply routes were disrupted. In fact, the shutdowns seemed to contribute to a rise as people sought out alternatives they were less familiar with from unknown or different suppliers. Medical examiners are reporting an increase in less common substances in autopsies and toxicology reports, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl and carfentanil have been increasingly finding their way into the supply chain. The potency of these synthetics is unprecedented—fentanyl is some 50 times more powerful than heroin, and carfentanil is some 100 times more deadly than that. As such, they can overwhelm even experienced drug users. The American Medical Association recently warned the public, reporting that officials in 34 states have alerted them to the growing frequency of such drugs in overdose cases.
Adding further fuel to the fire, funding for addiction and behavioral health services has been reallocated to fighting COVID-19 or simply cut from budgets as cities take financial strain from the pandemic. The coronavirus also put a halt to a billion-dollar research program into new forms of treatment.
Moreover, many treatment facilities have been teetering on the brink as revenue from services and reduced government payments go missing from already strapped budgets.
Isolation, Anxiety, and Depression
Stay at home orders and social distancing have also contributed to deteriorating mental health. Addiction is a disease of isolation—cutting off traditional support networks and limiting regular in person contact can exacerbate anxiety and depression, and interfere with much-needed recovery activities. Moreover, when people use alone, overdoses are more likely to be lethal as no one is available to administer Narcan, (also known as Naloxone, a life-saving drug), or call paramedics.
Other side effects of the virus, like job losses and growing financial worries have also been contributors. Over 20 million are unemployed, marking the country’s most severe economic meltdown since the Great Depression. Moreover, early evidence suggests that the virus has increased levels of anxiety, uncertainty, fear, and depression, while interfering with the human connections that help people manage those feelings. Research has established strong links between declining economies and suicides, drug use, and ODs. Although that research was based on data from previous recessions, which were much less sudden, the current downturn also came along with serious changes to routines and lifestyles, making it hard to predict long-term effects.
Nevertheless, when people cite the connection between job losses and a rise in overdoses there is an assumption that the outlook is hopeless. But unlike coronavirus, there is an answer for people struggling with addiction. We offer real solutions and time-tested treatment methods that offer a way out. If you or someone you know needs help – reach out. We are a safe haven for people ready to change.