Drug Overdoses on the Rise Amidst Coronavirus Pandemic

by Thaddeus Camlin, PsyD

We know that close connections and a breadth of quality relationships are often at the heart of overcoming addictive problems.  The coronavirus and subsequent safety measures mandating isolation make close connections with others more challenging than ever.  It is no surprise then, amidst a pandemic forcing social isolation, that people are turning to substances to cope with disconnection from others.  Sadly, recent data from first responders and hospitals suggests that during social isolation restrictions overdoses increased 18% in March, 29% in April, and 42% in May.  The harrowing overdose statistics further evidence the notion that, to a large extent, the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it’s connection.

Spiking alcohol sales during coronavirus were among first signs of people increasing substance use to cope with the stress, uncertainty, pain, and loss endured during 2020’s trying times.  Disconnection, financial hardship, and disruptions to the unregulated, multi-billion dollar/year black market for drugs are an insidious perfect storm for overdoses amidst the coronavirus to skyrocket, and skyrocket they have.  One county in Virginia saw twice as many fatal overdoses in the four months of the coronavirus than all of 2019.  Aptly referred to as deaths of despair, surging overdose rates speak to the depths of suffering humanity faces.

Before coronavirus, the United States was already losing an average of 128 people every day to opioid overdoses alone.  Official government data might not become available until 2021, but it is safe to say that drug overdose death rates will constitute an epidemic within the pandemic.  The tragedy of increasing overdose deaths is compounded and exacerbated by the lack of effective treatment options.

One can only wonder what might be happening if the United States shed it allegiance to outdated, unsubstantiated, abstinence-only policies and treatment approaches to addictive problems prior to the coronavirus.  Glaring examples of the abject failure of U.S. policies and addiction treatment are the ongoing resistance to safer injection sites and well-established and effective approaches like heroin-assisted treatment, both of which are backed by overwhelming data in support of their efficacy in reducing overdoses.  

While it is too late to go back, it is not too late to help people who are struggling now.  Considering possibly, potentially, maybe rolling out a few harm-reduction measures here and there amounts to little more than smiley-glad-handed patronizing platitudes.  Not shedding the outdated thinking and practices that dug American addiction treatment into its current rut of one-size-fits-all ineffectiveness right now is effectively signing the death warrant for countless more people entrenched in deep suffering and in need of real help.