18 Sep The Opioid Crisis Meets Covid-19 In a Perfect Storm
The opioid crisis is one of the worst public health issues in the history of the United States. Opioid use and abuse have risen exponentially in the country for roughly three decades, and with it comes rising overdose statistics and increasingly potent drugs as well. Synthetic opioids have been the main cause of opioid overdoses and overdose deaths, and indeed, drug overdose deaths in general. In 2017, opioids were involved in nearly 68% of drug overdose deaths. That adds up to a total of 47,600 opioid overdoses resulting in death.
As the opioid crisis remains mostly out of control, it’s now colliding with the Covid-19 pandemic, which has resulted in lockdowns and hospitalizations for many people. This has left many unable to get help or stranded alone. These factors are slowly worsening the opioid epidemic.
How Covid-19 Exacerbated the Opioid Epidemic
• Financial loss and concern
• Home and work changes
• Continuing uncertainty
• Reluctance to seek treatment
It starts with the repercussions of Covid-19, which has resulted in layoffs, isolation and uncertainty. People with opioid dependency or an opioid use disorder have found themselves in unprecedented conditions. Many have found themselves dealing with isolation for days or weeks as health officials have cautioned against interacting with too many people.
For some who struggle with addiction, isolation and uncertainty can be a trigger to start using opioids or another substance again. Unfortunately, it may have caused others previously at risk for addiction to start abusing opioids for the first time, thus causing more cases of opioid dependency.
Further exacerbating the opioid crisis during Covid-19 is the reluctance by some patients to seek treatment for addiction due to fears of becoming infected. Others have tried to seek help, only to find facilities closed or running on limited capacity and services.
Opioid Epidemic Worrisome Trends
Many experts have suggested that it’s too early yet to know the effect of the pandemic on the opioid crisis and addiction rates in general. However, there are some concerning trends starting to emerge. For example, alcohol sales have gone up over 25%, and positive drug tests for fentanyl, meth and cocaine have increased as well. Drug and opioid overdoses have also increased by nearly 20% in the same period between March and May of 2020.
Healthcare providers on the ground treating people with addiction and substance use disorders have reported that some patients did well initially, but lost their resolve as the lockdowns continued. They have also reported hesitance to seek help due to fear of infection from Covid-19.
The other issue with drug use during the pandemic is the deadly turn towards illicit drugs from unknown dealers. Previous supply chains have been disrupted in many cases, which has led to dealers distributing drugs from unknown sources. Even worse, many people in isolation end up overdosing alone. Healthcare workers have reported a lot of opioid overdoses going straight to the morgue as opposed to the ER.
Innovative Treatment Becomes More Necessary
Healthcare providers are more determined than ever to help patients avoid falling into addiction or infection with Covid-19. Online support groups have been crucial in getting patients access to prescriptions like methadone as well as providing psychological support. Simply refusing to give patients access to opioids has not helped in the past as patients often turn to other drugs such as heroin. Aside from the pandemic, research shows that drug use in general often increases during periods of economic instability. In essence, Covid-19 has led to a perfect storm of multiple factors that have increased opioid use in the last six months.
How Stress and Isolation Lead to Addiction
Before Covid-19, escalating drug use was already a big problem in the United States. As of 2018, there were over 20 million people struggling with addiction or a substance abuse disorder related to alcohol or drugs. Of that 20 million, two million had an opioid dependency disorder. Addiction and substance abuse is often fueled by stress and an inability to cope with stress. Not only that, but stress is a common reason behind relapse cases.
Bring in the Covid-19 pandemic where stress increased drastically along with isolation, and it becomes a recipe for more drug and opioid use and opioid dependency. It’s also a problem for those trying to recover from addiction. People in recovery from opioid dependency have a certain hypersensitivity to stress due to how various substances affect the central nervous system. They’re more susceptible to stress than other people.
Another problem is that opioids decrease the ability to experience a rewarding feeling. Combine strong sensitivity to stress with a reduced ability to enjoy anything, then add in isolation, and it’s easy to see why many people have relapsed during the pandemic lockdowns.
Risky Drug Use
One of the things fueling opioid overdoses during the pandemic is drug supply chain interruptions. This has caused more potent drugs to hit the market and also gaps in use. For example, when someone with opioid dependency stops using for a while, they lose tolerance. When they start again at the same level they did before, it can create an overdose situation. The other problem, as mentioned earlier, is that many people are using drugs in isolation, which means no one is there to call 911 when they become unresponsive.
Improvement Before the Pandemic
Before the pandemic, there were some encouraging signs in the opioid epidemic. Prescriptions have been in decline since 2012, and the CDC statistics showed over a five percent decline in overdose deaths in 2019. However, marked improvement has remained slow overall. Experts have emphasized the need for more awareness and education regarding opioid dependency. Meanwhile, the government has continued to add more regulations in hopes of improving the opioid epidemic.
In 2019, the FDA released a publication describing the benefits and risks of prescribing opioids. The purpose is to assess whether new opioids are really better than opioid or non-opioid painkillers already available. Some of the risk assessment for new drugs includes the following:
• Is it more potent than other opioids?
• Is it easier to abuse through crushing, dissolving or injecting?
• Is there potential for it to be made and sold illegally?
The FDA is also focused on holding distributors responsible for the illegal distribution of the drugs. According to the Drug Supply Chain Security Act, all distributors, dispensers and manufacturers are required to implement systems to investigate suspect medications.
The Role of Pharmacists
Most states require pharmacists to look up a patient’s history before dispensing drugs. If a particular state allows over-the-counter sales of naloxone, which counters opioid overdoses, then the pharmacy needs to make sure enough of it is available on a regular basis. Pharmacists can play an important role in their communities for monitoring misuse of prescription painkillers.
Addiction Treatment for Opioids
Addiction treatment is still readily available during the pandemic from a quality addiction treatment center like New Method Wellness. We offer dual diagnosis treatment to address opioid dependency and substance abuse as well as mental health issues. A wide range of treatment options are available, including the following:
At New Method Wellness, we want to ensure that our clients get the most effective treatment for opioid dependency and mental health issues. That’s why we offer a number of programs and treatments to provide individualized care.