Local and federal officials are reporting worrying increases in drug overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP) says the national count of suspected overdoses rose 18 percent in March compared with last year, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May. 62% of counties participating in ODMAP have reported increased overdoses since March.
Ronanoke County, Virginia police have seen double the fatal overdoses in the past few months as they did during all of 2019. Kentucky saw its first decline in overdose deaths in five years in 2019, but many towns in the state are now seeing this decline quickly reverse itself. There were 473 overdose deaths in Cook County, Illinois last year from January to June, but this year’s total through May was 656, with another 400+ suspected overdoses pending toxicology reports and investigation.
It appears the rise in overdoses is being driven largely by the COVID-19 pandemic and the isolation, economic recession and drug trade disruptions it has caused.
Authorities hoped that a disruption in drug traffic caused by the pandemic and its associated border closings and city shutdowns would create a decrease in overdoses, but it appears to have created the opposite. Disruption of drug supply lines has caused people to look for new, unfamiliar substances and suppliers, increasing overdose and death risks.
The pandemic has forced numerous recovery programs, drug courts and treatment centers to close. Advocates say that emergency funding for needle-exchange programs, recovery centers and treatment programs is desperately needed.
Social distancing and isolation caused by the pandemic mean that more people are taking drugs alone without anyone around to call 911 when they overdose. The psychological effects of social isolation are also having devastating consequences.
“It’s when you feel alone, stigmatized and hopeless that you are most vulnerable and at risk,” said Robert Ashford, who runs a recovery center. “So much of addiction has nothing to do with the substance itself. It has to do with pain or distress or needs that aren’t being met.”
The pandemic has created depression, anxiety, uncertainty and fear amongst the population while cutting off the connections with other humans necessary to assist in dealing with those issues.
Over 20 million people are unemployed nationwide because of the pandemic, and stagnating economies have been strongly linked by research to drug overdoses.