New data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show deaths involving opioids surged 37 percent between 2019 and 2020. An estimated 69,710 Americans lost their lives due to opioid overdoses last year, bolstering claims the COVID-19 lockdowns cost more than money. They cost lives.
“The nation’s COVID pandemic made the nation’s drug overdose epidemic worse,” The American Medical Association wrote in a June 2021 issues brief, adding, “The nation’s opioid epidemic has grown into a much more complicated and deadly drug overdose epidemic.”
“I don’t think it would have been this high a number if Covid-19 hadn’t hit us,” Franklin County, Ohio coroner Anahi Ortiz told The Wall Street Journal. “We’re seeing a lot more relapses.”
Opioids are the main driver of drug overdose deaths in the U.S. More than 93,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020, a 30 percent increase from the prior year. For comparison, an estimated 38,500 people died in motor vehicle traffic crashes last year and 20,000 Americans lost their lives to gun violence.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioid pain relievers are generally safe to take for a short period of time, when prescribed by a doctor. But because they produce euphoria in addition to pain relief, they can become addictive.
To avoid contracting COVID-19, Americans were advised to wear masks, avoid contact with others and postpone all nonessential travel. These necessary health measures left an increasing number of Americans reporting feelings of depression and anxiety and forced disruptions to outreach and treatment facilities. Experts say the spike in drug overdose deaths indicates another devastating impact COVID-19 has had on society.
“The pandemic virtually stopped peer support and created isolation,” said Marvin Ventrell, chief executive of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers. “If an individual is prone to use, isolation increases the likelihood [they will use] and the amount of use. [Isolation] also prevents one of the primary recovery mechanisms from taking place – peer support.”
While opioid overdose deaths have been rising steadily since 1999 – excluding a slight decrease in 2018 – the 2020 surge was extraordinary. Between 2018 and 2019, opioid overdose deaths rose a mere 7 percent, and between 2017 and 2018 opioid overdose deaths actually decreased by 2 percent. Earlier in the decade, America observed a 13 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths between 2016 and 2017 and a much larger 28 percent increase between 2015 and 2016.
However, those numbers pale in comparison to the 2020 spike.
According to Aaron Williams, a senior director at the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, the restrictions imposed as a result of the coronavirus pandemic impacted those who were getting support for substance use disorders.
“Access to addiction treatment was more limited during covid and access to harm reduction services was more limited,” said Williams. “Even if [support groups] are available by Zoom… in rural communities, in communities of color, there are issues with access to technology to get online and partake in a [remote] meeting.”
No region was able to avoid rising opioid deaths. On the West Coast, California saw fatalities rise 73 percent between December 2019 and December 2020. In the South, Texas saw deaths rise by 43 percent and in Mississippi by 46 percent. On the East Coast, Vermont deaths rose almost 51 percent.
According to CDC data, only two states, New Hampshire and South Dakota, avoided an increase in overdose deaths last year.
New Hampshire had been one of the hardest-hit states. In 2018, it had the third-highest number of per capita opioid-related deaths in the country, behind Maryland and West Virginia. Yet over the past two years, the Granite State was able to prevent a year-over-year increase. It reported 347 opioid deaths in 2020 versus 407 in 2019.
“We all assumed our numbers would fly through the roof in 2020 and amazingly, New Hampshire’s didn’t,” New Hampshire’s Gov. Chris Sununu told reporters. “But as good as this news is, this kinda scares me a little bit. We haven’t won this. We’ve got so long to go.”
To address the toll opioids inflicted on the Granite State, New Hampshire spent millions in federal funds to start The Doorway program providing single points of entry for people seeking help for substance use, including treatment, support, and resources. There are nine regional Doorway locations throughout New Hampshire to ensure that help is always less than an hour away.
“The most important thing we could do to respond to the opioid crisis is to fully integrate the care of opioid addiction into mainstream healthcare,” said Keith Humphreys, a psychiatry professor at Stanford University. “That would involve making sure it’s fully covered [by insurance], training physicians adequately to treat addiction, and supporting the recovery community.”