Alcohol-Related Deaths Spiked During First Year Of COVID-19

As the world reels from the 6.13 million lives lost directly to COVID-19, new research reveals the extent that the pandemic’s toll has reached, and it goes well beyond the disease itself. In the pandemic’s first year, from 2019 to 2020, the number of Americans who died from alcohol-related causes increased by 25%, as most forms of normalcy, routine, treatment access, and coping skills were either disrupted or eradicated during this time. 

The pandemic has drastically disrupted work, home, and social life, and among these changes were America’s relationship with alcohol. The 25% increase in alcohol-related deaths was represented among all age groups, starting with age 16, ethnicities, genders, and races, but young adults ages 25 to 44 experienced the most significant increase. In fact, for adults younger than 65 years old, alcohol-related deaths outnumbered COVID-19 deaths, 74,408 to 74,075. Additionally, the study, conducted by researchers with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), found that the rate of alcohol-related deaths, including deaths from liver disease and accidents, outpaced the increase of death from all causes.

Changes In Alcohol Consumption During The Pandemic

To offset widespread fear, frustration, and social isolation rampant during the pandemic, many turned to alcohol to self-soothe. In the first month of the stay-at-home orders in March of 2020, national alcohol sales rose 54%, and some states even allowed restaurants and similar on-premises retailers to sell carry-out alcohol beverages. As more individuals found themselves stuck at home with amplified stressors, minimal coping strategies, and increased alcohol availability, the frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 14% compared to the previous year, according to a study by the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA). Increased alcohol consumption was a developing trend predating the pandemic, as were mental health struggles, but the conditions of the pandemic made individuals more susceptible to substance abuse

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However, the pandemic particularly impacted women and parents with young children regarding alcohol consumption. Women have disproportionately taken on the responsibility of child care, home management, and children’s education since the pandemic, so it reasons that women have increased their use of alcohol disproportionately. What may have started as an additional glass of wine with dinner turned into a 41% increase in the number of days women are drinking heavily or consuming 4 or more drinks within a short time. Those without children faced their own struggles as many experienced increased rates of isolation and loneliness, which are factors related to increased alcohol consumption. 

Drug Overdoses Rise Alongside Alcohol-Related Deaths

In conjunction with rising alcohol-related deaths, the number of Opioid overdoses involving alcohol increased by 40.8% in 2020, and there was a 59.2% increase in overdoses involving alcohol and synthetic Opioids like Fentanyl. While rates of Opioid overdoses have been on the incline in recent years, the pandemic only exacerbated these trends due to several factors, including increased isolation, stress, and a lack of treatment and support resources due to lockdown stipulations. 

Additionally, drug overdose deaths reached a record high during the pandemic’s first year, with over 100,000 Americans dying from overdoses within 12 months. This increase, much like the increase in alcohol-related deaths, can be linked to the loss of access to treatment, increased mental health issues, and the availability of potentially lethal substances. The rise in overdose deaths was primarily due to the widespread use of Fentanyl, but stimulants like Methamphetamine, Cocaine, and natural and semi-synthetic Opioids, such as prescription pain medication, also factored into increased rates. 

Loss Of Access To Treatment

Not only were individuals unable to connect with loved ones during quarantine, those who were in recovery from a substance use disorder (SUD) suddenly found themselves without multiple resources as treatment facilities closed temporarily. Those who may have already been struggling with sobriety could not attend in-person support group meetings like Alcoholics Anonymous or receive addiction treatment medicine from clinics. Treatment facilities across the US shut their doors in compliance with COVID-19 safety regulations, and health care providers struggled to tend to the onslaught of coronavirus patients, potentially deterring individuals from pursuing treatment for substance abuse. This rapid severance of treatment left many individuals experiencing a SUD reeling and struggling to find support.

This disruption of recovery treatment could lead individuals to resort back to old coping mechanisms, including using substances. “Stress is the primary factor in relapse, and there is no question there was a big increase in self-reported stress, and big increases in anxiety and depression,” said Aaron White, the senior scientific adviser at the NIAAA. These increased levels of stress, uncertainty, and anxiety that the pandemic has instilled in people only increases the risk of relapse in those struggling with substance abuse. 

Entering the third March of the pandemic, it is still unclear if alcohol-related deaths will decrease as the pandemic wanes. As COVID-19 restrictions continue to lax, many can physically access treatment centers, attend support group meetings, and connect with loved ones, so researchers are hopeful to see a reduction in alcohol-related deaths. 

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Carmen McCrackin

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  • Carmen McCrackin earned a B.A. in Journalism from the University of Auburn and is a professional writer. Her passion for writing and educating others led her to a career in journalism with a focus on mental health and social justice topics. Her main mission is to be a platform for all voices and stories, and to provide tangible resources to those seeking recovery for themselves or loved ones.

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