Spike in Opioid Deaths Tied to COVID-19

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Editorial cartoon by Rob Rogers, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, 2016, via Flickr

A spike in opioid-related deaths in Colorado adds new evidence to experts’ claims that the national drug crisis has been worsened by COVID-19.

The state experienced a steep increase in opioid deaths from February to March 2020 and the numbers have grown since, according to the Gazette, a Colorado Springs newspaper.

This mirrors U.S. data on drug overdose deaths. Since March, at least 41 states and the District of Columbia reported an increase in opioid overdoses, according to the American Medical Association’s brief on the issue.

According to a story in The New York Times, “in the six months since COVID-19 brought the nation to a standstill, the opioid epidemic has taken a sharp turn for the worse.”

In Arkansas, the use of Narcan, an overdose-reversing drug, has tripled. Jacksonville, Fla., has seen a 40 percent increase in overdose related calls. And in March alone, York County in Pennsylvania recorded three times more overdose deaths than normal, said the New York Times.

The AMA brief was written out of concern about not only the increased amount of opioid-related deaths but also about the rise in suffering from substance-use disorder or related mental illness.

While being in COVID isolation could keep those in recovery physically distant from friends who also misuse, it also distances them from essential family ties and “critical support structures,” Megan Moncur, the associate director of the Food and Drug Administration, told FDA Insight.

“Even when people with opioid-use disorder did seek treatment, they were faced with closed treatment centers, cancellations of in-person recovery meetings, or difficulty in accessing their opioid use disorder medications,” added Moncur.

In response to COVID-19, federal agencies responsible for opioid-abuse disorder medications are allowing for more telehealth visits and larger amounts of medications for patients, said Moncur.

This new flexibility, while important, doesn’t account for those without access to the Internet or the technology needed for telehealth visits for who need face-to-face interaction with their provider.

The increased misuse of opioids is thought to be linked to stressors caused by the coronavirus.

Given that the use of opioids is already linked to homelessness and unemployment, COVID-19 could worsen such issues as people use opioids as a way to manage the stress.

Although evaluating the role of COVID-19 in the increase in opioid-related deaths still awaits more research, some states say the link is hard to avoid.

Maryland, for example, claims it’s “clear” that COVID was the main influencer, with almost 90 percent of the state’s drug and alcohol-related deaths between January and June caused by opioid overdoses, the Baltimore Sun reports.

While the CDC only has opioid-related death numbers through 2018, the increase in state-level opioid deaths suggests that there will be a nation-wide increase reflected in 2020 data.

Read More: COVID-19 Deepens Toll of Opioid Crisis: Webinar

Emily Riley is a TCR justice reporting intern.

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