Drug deaths in the USA have risen to a record high in 2019, after falling for the first time for 25 years in 2018. Almost 72,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2019 according to the preliminary data that was released by the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention earlier this month.
Though there is currently no hard data available, there is speculation that the pandemic is complicating and worsening the surge, as 2020 looks to be even more devastating. Data collected by The New York Times saw for the first half of 2020 drug overdose deaths have risen by an average of 13 percent across America compared to last year. If this trend continues into the rest of the year, it will be the sharpest rise in annual drug deaths since 2016, when fentanyl made its way into US drug trafficking and street supply.
Increased funding toward addiction treatment, prevision and recovery services did shows signs of improving overdose deaths. Though the government has made this positive headway in the last few years in how they tackle the drug epidemic in America, this progress could be threatened by the current COVID-19 pandemic.
Earlier in the month, Brett Giroir, the administration’s assistant secretary for health, said in a statement, “We understand that there is an extraordinary amount of work to do, especially now as we are also dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic that could markedly affect our nation’s mental health and risk of substance use.”
Several public health experts said conditions created by the pandemic could hurt the nation’s fragile progress in fighting the surge of drug deaths but noted that the overdose rate was on its way back up well before the virus arrived. “Covid just makes it a bit worse,” said Dr. Dan Ciccarone, a professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, who studies the opioid epidemic. “It’s a small wave riding on top of a tsunami that continues to devastate.”
Although official statistics on 2020 overdose deaths won’t be available for a long time, there is local evidence showing drug related deaths are rising into 2020.
Increase in Drug related deaths from 2019 through the first portion of 2020
Though a lot of this data precedes the coronavirus pandemic, researchers believe there are several reasons why the virus could worsen the trend.
When state lockdowns first began in March, Dr. Anna Lembke, a clinician with Stanford’s Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, noticed many of her patients showing signs of improving. “Many patients described a kind of peacefulness without the constant hubbub of modern life and the constant triggers they’re exposed to,” she said.
However, in response to the virus, the US government has done something unheard-of: it relaxed rules and regulations around prescribing methadone and buprenorphine, two commonly prescribed opioid addiction treatments. Patients no longer needed to attend daily in person appointments to receive their methadone prescriptions and could instead be given 4 weeks’ worth at a time. Doctors no longer need to meet in person to prescribe buprenorphine.
This was initially celebrated as a positive change, however as the pandemic has progressed and people have remained isolated, lockdown has become harmful to people with mental health issues and drug addiction disorders.
“Social isolation has always been a huge component of drug overdose risk,” said Traci Green, an epidemiologist at Brown University who studies drug abuse and addiction. “So much of what we’ve been trying to do has been completely unravelled.”
Experts have pointed to other dangers lockdown poses such as;
- Lack of revival fall back from other users due to an increase in solo drug users
- Less emotional support as in person visits are scaled back
- Inconsistent drug strength and quality
- Supply or income disruption leading to inconsistent drug use habits and accidental overdose
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