The drug deaths started spiking last spring, as the coronavirus forced shutdowns, and more recent statistics from cities throughout the U.S. and Canada show the crisis has only deepened. In Colorado, overdose deaths were up 20% through the end of last year, and those involving fentanyl doubled; British Columbia officials reported nearly five overdose deaths per day in 2020, a 74% increase over the previous year; and a study released this month showed emergency room overdose visits increased up to 45% during the pandemic, even as total ER traffic slowed markedly.
The pandemic has ushered in stress, isolation, and economic upheaval — all known triggers for addiction and relapse — while robbing many people of treatment options and support systems. Addiction specialists across the country told STAT the overlapping health disasters — the historic Covid-19 pandemic colliding with a preexisting drug epidemic made deadlier by the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl — have been devastating for their patients. Many have simply disappeared; some have died; others have relapsed.
“There’s all of these ways Covid-19 has hurt the folks we take care of,” said Stephen Taylor, a psychiatrist and addiction specialist in Birmingham, Ala., who serves as chief medical officer of the behavioral health division of Pathway Healthcare. “Efforts to get this under control have really been decimated by the pandemic.”
Taylor described a patient who spoke only Spanish and had been doing well in recovery from opioid addiction for several months. “He’d found this excellent all-Spanish AA meeting. But that group wasn’t able to go online,” Taylor said. “That guy was all of a sudden without his 12-step group, and he relapsed.”
The increase in opioid deaths is crushing to those who work in public health and addiction treatment, who were finally making headway, thanks to growing public attention and government funding. Overdose deaths had fallen in 2018 for the first time in years. But the spread of fentanyl began to erode those gains, and now the pandemic has severely undercut efforts to control the opioid epidemic; with public health officials focused so heavily on the coronavirus, suffering and death due to substance abuse has largely fallen off the radar.
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