COVID-19 and Opioids: Pandemic vs. Epidemic

Despite continuing focus on the COVID-19 pandemic, public health officials remain concerned with opioid overdose and overdose-related death.

pills tumble from a prescription bottleThe Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently released data indicating a record number of opioid overdose-related deaths directly coinciding with onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Between March of 2020 and March of 2021, Maryland reported 2,826 opioid overdose-related deaths, a dramatic increase from 2,381 during the previous 12-month period. The CDC notes these numbers are incomplete and are likely underreported.

The heightened overdose crisis is not limited to Maryland. CNN reports, “the US saw 96,779 reported drug overdose deaths, an increase of 29.6% from March 2020 to March 2021.” In a statement provided to CNN, Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said the following:

“This has been an incredibly uncertain and stressful time for many people and we are seeing an increase in drug consumption, difficulty in accessing life-saving treatments for substance use disorders, and a tragic rise in overdose deaths.”

Similarly, the Hill reports:

The surge in overdose deaths comes after they slightly decreased in 2018 for the first time in decades. But the COVID-19 pandemic led to lockdowns and overall more seclusion and drew more health resources toward the virus and away from addressing drug use.

At the forefront of both public health crises are local governments, and their overburdened departments of health and human services. In the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the United States Congress recognized the outsized role of state and local governments in addressing COVID-19 and directed funds accordingly. Regarding the recent escalation in opioid overdose-related deaths, similar action has yet to be taken.

Local governments and their partners will need resources to help with opioid-related outreach and connections to care, both critical needs alluded to by Dr. Volkow and The Hill. In Maryland, a recent multimillion dollar settlement between the state and Johnson and Johnson, as well as three opioid medication distributors, may provide some help. Regardless, more is needed to ensure local governments and their partners achieve consistency across their opioid epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic responses.

Read the full CNN article.

Read the full The Hill article.