Drug Overdose Deaths Hit 93,331 Record High During Pandemic
Suzette Gomez ❘
Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, drug overdose deaths in the United States hit a record high of 93,331 in 2020.
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Suzette Gomez ❘
COVID-19, also known as coronavirus, has caused unprecedented changes to the world since March, 2020. Because the spread of COVID affects every continent, it is considered a global pandemic. Personal and economic activity was completely upended as strict stay at home orders and social distancing guidelines were put into place. These conditions lead to massive job loss and extended quarantines which, for some, increased stress, isolation, and financial problems.
These effects of the pandemic can be relapse triggers for those who have struggled with a substance use disorder (SUD) in the past or can lead others to start using and form an addiction. COVID-19 has not put a stop to addiction, but has actually increased substance use across the US. A May 2021 study found that almost one-third of those who drink alcohol increased their consumption during the pandemic. The same study reported drug use increased at a similar rate. This resulted in 2021 having the highest number of drug overdoses in a 12 month period for the US. In November of 2021, it was reported that over 100,000 overdose deaths had occurred. Because of this increase in fatal outcomes, treating SUDs in drug and alcohol treatment is more important than ever.
COVID-19 is a highly infectious respiratory disease that is caused by the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The spread of COVID-19 occurs through airborne particles and droplets carrying the virus. The majority of those who are infected with COVID-19 are either asymptomatic or develop only mild symptoms. In these instances, recovery happens within weeks of infection and without treatment. Some individuals, typically older people and those with underlying medical conditions, become incredibly ill and require hospitalization. COVID-19 and its complications can be fatal.
In the summer of 2021, the Delta variant was the predominant version of the COVID-19 virus. As of December, 2021, the Omicron variant has been found in most US states and territories. The proportion of COVID-19 cases caused by Omicron is steadily increasing. The CDC is still monitoring the most recent variant of COVID-19. It is not concretely known yet how easily it is spreading, its severity, or how effective the vaccines are for this variant. While more data is needed, the CDC does believe Omicron will spread more easily than the original SARS-CoV-2 virus. They also expect that this version can be spread by those who are vaccinated or those who don’t have symptoms.
Vaccines for COVID-19 have been approved, authorized, and proven to be effective in preventing severe disease and death caused by COVID-19. Despite this, breakthrough infections caused by Omicron are still possible. Fully vaccinated individuals can still transmit the virus if infected. Mayo Clinic is currently reporting that about 62% of the US population is fully vaccinated and 73% have at least one dose.
With the increased prevalence of the Omicron variant, the CDC continues to recommend certain safety precautions are taken. Because vaccinated and unvaccinated people can spread the COVID-19, it is recommended that those in areas of substantial or high transmission wear face masks in indoor locations, regardless of vaccination status. These masks should cover the nose and mouth completely. If one is experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, they should get tested. After coming in contact with someone who has tested positive for the coronavirus, fully vaccinated people should get tested 3-5 days after exposure and wear a mask for 14 days after.
Doctors and scientists are also making efforts to understand what is being called “long COVID”. This term pertains to the post-COVID conditions that some may experience after recovering from the virus. These conditions may be new, returning, or ongoing typically within 4 or more weeks after being infected. Anyone who had COVID-19, no matter the severity of symptoms, can experience long covid conditions. Commonly reported symptoms of long covid include shortness of breath, fatigue, difficulty thinking (or brain fog), cough, headaches, diarrhea, sleep problems, dizziness, mood changes, changes in taste or smell, changes to menstrual cycles, and chest pain.
The stress caused by COVID-19/Coronavirus has impacted many aspects of addiction. In 2021, 4 in 10 adults were reported to be showing anxiety symptoms which is a big increase from the 1 in 10 reported in 2019. As anxiety has increased, so has the use of alcohol and other substances as a coping method. Addiction, often referred to as the disease of isolation, has been affected by strict social distancing guidelines, working from home, and other factors. Being stuck at home and removed from others may have caused some to relapse or begin using substances for the first time. Several studies have shown that binge drinking and overdoses have significantly increased since the beginning of the pandemic.
In the early days of the pandemic, obtaining needed medications was more difficult than normal as most doctors’ offices were closed and doing telehealth appointments instead. Job losses, as a result of the closure of many businesses, left many without healthcare. These obstacles may have caused some to search for illicit substances as an alternative to the prescriptions they could not obtain. These substances are typically more likely to lead to the development of an addiction, or a substance use disorder (SUD).
Using illicit substances also comes with a high risk for overdose. Because they are unregulated, street drugs can be laced with very strong and dangerous substances such as the synthetic Opioid, Fentanyl. Because Fentanyl is 50 to 100 times more potent than Morphine and virtually undetectable, it is the leading cause of unintentional overdose deaths. During the COVID-19 pandemic, 93,000 overdose deaths were reported for the year of 2020 which is a 29% increase from last year.
Addiction has a significant impact on the spread of COVID-19, as well as its progression. When individuals abuse substances, especially alcohol, their decision-making and judgement are often impaired, as is their ability to properly gauge risk. For this reason, they may not follow social distancing guidelines and can contribute to the spread of the virus.
Men, especially in countries like Italy and China, have significantly higher rates of hospitalization and fatality than women. However, it appears that men and women are infected at roughly equal rates. It has been widely theorized that one of the primary contributing factors to this increased risk is that men demonstrate significantly higher rates of smoking than women in these countries.
It is believed that the long-term damage and decreased lung capacity caused by smoking increases the risk of being infected with respiratory diseases like COVID-19. Being a smoker can also increase the severity of the symptoms associated with the coronavirus. It is unclear whether these aspects apply to other smoked drugs such as Crack Cocaine, Marijuana, and Meth, but it is very likely. Additionally, intravenous drug use, such as shooting Heroin or other Opioids, is known to dramatically increase the risk of heart and other pulmonary infections. This can make an individual more susceptible to the worst consequences of the Coronavirus.
Yes, rehabs are still open. Rehab for drug and alcohol addiction is an essential service, even during the COVID-19 pandemic. For many people, the risks of alcohol poisoning or a drug overdose are more dangerous and urgent than the risk of coronavirus. Because lives are on the line, treatment cannot stop. Similar to medical professionals in America’s clinics and hospitals, the licensed treatment professionals who work in rehab centers are dedicated to helping the community during these uncertain times. Across the country, rehab centers remain ready and available to provide high-quality treatment to anyone seeking to overcome a SUD.
Yes, rehab is still safe. Right now, rehab centers are taking preventive measures to ensure that their facilities remain coronavirus-free. Rehab facilities are regularly testing patients and potential patients for COVID-19. Inpatient and outpatient treatment programs are continuing to adapt to comply with social-distancing guidelines. Additionally, rehab centers are ensuring they have adequate amounts of personal protective equipment (PPE) and hand sanitizer.
Because of how infectious COVID-19 is, some might feel that staying home and social distancing is the best way to keep themselves safe. In general, this is true but for those struggling with addiction, seeking treatment should be the top priority. Isolation and loneliness may trigger relapse or substance use which can lead to fatal outcomes as an addiction gets progressively worse. Rehab facilities are doing all they can to comply with COVID-19 guidelines to create a safe and comfortable environment for treatment. Even in a pandemic, there is no better day than today to seek treatment for a drug or alcohol addiction.
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