According to a government study, drug overdoses in the U.S. soared above 100,000 last year amidst the COVID-19 crisis. Authorities are blaming the surge on synthetic drugs, limited treatment, and mental health struggles due to COVID-19.
The recent surge represents an uptick of 28 percent in the twelve-month-period ending April, 2021. Last year, during the same period, 78,000 overdoses were recorded nationwide. This period’s drug-related overdose cases more than doubled the number recorded in 2015.
According to a report by the National Center for Health Statistics, the data shows that most fatal drug overdoses are due to fentanyl — a drug that kicks in fast and is said to be 100 times more powerful than opium — or other dangerous synthetic drugs.
Other drug-related deaths involved stimulants like methamphetamine, cocaine, and natural and semi-synthetic opioids. Overdoses due to prescribed pain killers are also on the rise. In many cases, street drugs were secretly mixed with fentanyl to enhance their potency. Drug abuse has caused more mortalities in the U.S. than gun and traffic accidents combined.
Soaring drug overdose numbers
“These are numbers we have never seen before,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the New York Times (NYT) reported. “The fatalities have lasting repercussions since most of them occurred among people aged 25 to 55, in the prime of life,” she added.
“They leave behind friends, family, and children, if they have children, so there are a lot of downstream consequences,” Dr. Volkow added. “This is a major challenge to our society.”
Dr. Volkow believes some drug users set out to score fentanyl right away, while others “may not have wanted to take it. But that is what is being sold, and the risk of overdose is very high,” she said adding that, “Many people are dying without knowing what they are ingesting.”
“If we had talked a year ago, I would have told you deaths are skyrocketing. But I would not have guessed it would get to this,” Dr. Andrew Kolodny, medical director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University’s Heller School for Social Policy and Management said, according to the NYT.
Dr. Kolodny believes most people who die due to an overdose had underlying mental or drug addiction-related issues which could have escalated during times of crisis and isolation.
Kolodny believes many youngsters involved could have developed an addiction to prescribed synthetic opioids.
“Teenagers are routinely being given opioids to this day when their wisdom teeth come out,” he said.
Failing health care programs
Despite hefty investments in the prevention and treatment of drug abuse-related problems through a US$1.5 billion stimulus bill issued last spring the current public health emergency has not been contained.
An additional US$30 million that was provided for local rehabilitation and syringe exchange programs and to provide fast test strips for identifying fentanyl-affected substances has been deemed inadequate. Social relief workers are calling for additional funds to provide greater access to treatment centers and same-day accessibility services.
“We’re seeing a lot of people who delayed getting help, and who seem to be more sick,” Dr. Joseph Lee, president and chief executive of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation, said. Lee argues that the problems have been exacerbated because of the lockdowns during the pandemic and attributes part of the problem to a loss of social coherency.
Others, like Dr. Rahul Gupta, director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy advocate for readier access to an overdose antidote drug like naloxone.
“I believe that no one should die of an overdose simply because they didn’t have access to naloxone,” Gupta said. “Sadly, today that is happening across the country, and access to naloxone often depends a great deal on where you live,” the outlet reported.
Another successful treatment for opioid disorders is a medicine called buprenorphine, which is only employable to a caretaker under federal subscription.
“If you really want to see deaths come down, you have to make it much easier for someone who is addicted to opioids to access treatment, particularly with buprenorphine,” Dr. Kolodny said.
“It has to be easier to get treatment than to buy a bag of dope.”