Just as social distancing, masks and hand sanitizer help prevent COVID-19 deaths, community education, timely access to drug treatment and the widespread distribution of naloxone reduce overdose fatalities. But as we marked the 20th annual International Overdose Awareness Day on Monday, the coronavirus and opioid crises have converged and overdose fatalities that have fallen in recent years seem headed back to all-time highs.
According to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, annual overdose deaths jumped 5% in 2019 to 72,000 and while COVID-19-weary coroners struggle to finish overdose autopsies, 2020 is already looking grim. Real-time data, for example, collected by the Washington, D.C.-based Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program found that overdoses jumped roughly 18% following the commencement of state-mandated stay-at-home orders in mid-March, with more than 61% of participating counties nationwide — including Nassau and Suffolk — reporting increases.
Preliminary data from the Nassau County Police Department indicate a 48% year-to-date increase in fatal overdoses with 95 deaths so far in 2020 versus 64 deaths in 2019, 67 in 2018 and 80 in 2017. Suffolk County’s preliminary data released in May suggest a 40% increase in fatal overdoses over the 89 deaths reported during the same period in 2019
We shouldn’t be surprised.
Considering the risk factors for addiction, COVID-19 is the perfect storm. Health fears, stress, social isolation, job loss, economic strife and uncertainty about the future are impacting even the most well-adjusted individuals. A recent survey by the CDC found that 13.3% of Americans started or increased their substance use to cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19.
Coronavirus hit, was rightfully labeled the newest pandemic, and the opioid crisis, after only briefly receiving the overdue attention it deserved, quickly faded into the background. Local hospitals emptied their detox units to make room for COVID-19 patients. Drug treatment facilities fearful of outbreaks closed or dramatically reduced their capacity. Twelve-step groups booted from churches went virtual, but the hugs and handshakes that are part of the secret sauce suddenly disappeared. School-based drug-prevention programs came to a screeching halt and teachers no longer had the daily face-to-face contact with students necessary to detect emergent problems and intervene effectively. The news stories thinned, drug awareness events came off the calendar, and while government regulators acted early to facilitate reimbursement for telehealth visits and eased access to medications that treat opioid use disorder, many politicians shifted their attention to COVID-19 and, more recently, power outages.
As all this was happening, New York started “withholding” up to 31% of state funding for mental health services, addiction treatment, and more recently, a whole host of other health and human services programs while lawmakers wait to see whether Congress passes a COVID-19 relief package that would help close New York’s multibillion-dollar budget gap.
Congress should act, but let’s be honest: There’s no elected official on the planet who would dare suggest publicly that government doesn’t have the money to deal with the long-predicted second wave of COVID-19 that will likely hit this fall. Addiction prevention, treatment and other mental health services are our personal protective equipment against the isolation, pain and suffering that has been exacerbated by COVID-19 and is turning out to be just as deadly as the virus itself.
This article first appeared in the August 31, 2020 edition of Newsday.