Opioid-related deaths during pandemic up in at least 35 states: study

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Before the coronavirus pandemic flipped the world upside down, the U.S. for years was battling one of its worst epidemics: opioid abuse. 

The alarming abuse didn't stop when the pandemic began. In fact, since the novel coronavirus erupted, there has been a reported increase in opioid-related deaths in more than 35 states, particularly from illicitly manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl analogs, according to the American Medical Association.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported more than 67,000 people died of opioid overdoses in 2018, the most recent year with data available, while opioids and painkillers -- like fentanyl, oxycodone, or heroin -- account for 70 percent of all drug overdose deaths. 

Now, as millions of Americans are grappling with the throes of the pandemic, health experts who know the benefits that social distancing has on slowing the spread of the virus acknowledge a collision of epidemics. 

“We know that from reports of overdoses, these may have increased 30% [to] 40%,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, according to WBUR. “We know also that from some of the reports from the states that there have been increases in overdose fatalities, that there have been increases in patients relapsing that had already achieved recovery. So we are hearing these distress calls from throughout the country.”

For recovering addicts who participate in anonymous 12-step programs, their recovery community is paramount in navigating a journey where relapse chances are not statistically on an addict’s side. Plus, social distancing measures make accessing support groups challenging, and fear surrounding the virus has slowed the number of new patients at treatment centers. 

“It’s hard to underestimate the effects of the pandemic on the community with opioid use disorder,” said Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, per Kaiser Health News. “The pandemic has profoundly disrupted the drug markets. Normally that would drive more people to treatment. Yet treatment is harder to come by.”

Many 12-step groups defaulted to virtual meetings to bring recovering addicts together, but the epidemics combined to create a powerful crisis that many health experts worry will cause more people to turn to drugs to cope with pandemic-related issues. As part of a statewide treatment effort in California, local health departments indicate fewer people addicted to drugs are receiving treatment. 

“Fewer people are seeking treatment for services during this time period, but an increase in relapses has been noted for those who are involved in treatment,” said Jeffrey Nagel, director of Orange County’s Behavioral Health Services, which monitors trends at treatment providers to Cal Matters

The AMA is calling on governors and state legislatures to take action, such as removing existing barriers for patients with pain to obtain necessary medications. Additionally, they're asking states to enact, implement, and support harm reduction strategies. This includes removing barriers to sterile needle and syringe service programs. 

Volkow told WBUR she would encourage people struggling with addiction to seek treatment during the pandemic, despite changes to traditional treatment methods. 

“I would want them to know that there is treatment and that treatment works,” she said. “Addiction is a very serious disorder, and it can jeopardize your life. So seek help, seek treatment.”