What happened to the Drug Epidemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has made the last month some of the most unusual times in many people’s lifetimes. It’s affected all of us in some way, whether it be financially, educationally, health-wise, or just in our day to day lives. But amidst this emerging public health crisis, many people have forgotten about public health enemy number one, addiction.

Substance abuse commanded the spotlight for the last decade or more as the most significant public health emergency in the country.  But what’s happened to it?  Has it fallen by the wayside as the hot topic of coronavirus commands the media?  Or, has it gotten better?

Since COVID-19 is developing so rapidly, there’s a delay between what’s occurring and when it gets reported.  It’s only been a month since things took a turn, which is about how long it takes to gather a measurable set of data for comparison to other periods. But the trend that’s emerging doesn’t look good.

Several communities have reported spikes in overdose deaths since the COVID-19 pandemic began, raising concern about the welfare of those who struggle with substance abuse during these times.  In Jacksonville, Florida, the fire and rescue department reported a 20% increase in emergency calls for drug overdoses during March.  The coroner’s office in Columbus, Ohio, observed a surge in overdose deaths, including as many as 12 in one day at one point.  And in New York state, four counties have acknowledged increases in overdose deaths so far.  Because the CDC hasn’t released any data for national trends yet, we don’t know if this is a nationwide problem or isolated to specific areas.

Some believe that the spike in numbers could be a consequence of social distancing. Perhaps people are avoiding treatment centers and methadone clinics where they were receiving a daily dose of opioid treatment medication, and as a result, have relapsed.  But the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration recently released guidelines that allow those on medications like Suboxone and Methadone to take home up to four weeks’ worth of drugs to facilitate this.

Some could speculate that the reverse is accurate, and the looser regulations for social distancing may aid in the overdose of the medications.  Until we get the data, it’s all speculation.

This pandemic is a novel situation, and we were sorely underprepared in some areas.  Our healthcare systems just aren’t equipped to handle an epidemic, specifically when it comes to substance abuse treatment.

Rehabs were late to receive guidance, and many people still don’t know what to do.  Those who need services are wondering whether it’s safe to enter a group treatment setting, which nearly every model in America is.  We’ve just never dealt with anything like this before, so there isn’t a precedent.

One police chief from a city outside of Indianapolis is taking matters into his own hands when it comes to a lack of COVID-19 policy.  He’s issued orders to his officers to not administer Narcan to those suspected of overdosing on opioids.  Instead, he wants his officers to wait at least 6 feet back until medical professionals with proper medical equipment arrive.

His reasoning for this is because opioids kill by stopping respiratory function.  Narcan, which reverses opioid overdose, can cause a person to suddenly gasp, cough, and grasp at people around them in confusion as they quite literally come back to life.  But if you’re a first responding officer, the time spent waiting for medical personnel to arrive could mean the difference between life and death in an opioid overdose.

Nobody knows how this will all turn out or how much longer it will go on.  But so far, it appears that America’s drug epidemic didn’t go away just because we started paying less attention to it.  If anything, it got worse.  The coronavirus may have momentarily stolen the spotlight when it comes to public health emergencies, but it will likely end up revealing more about addiction than it obscures.  As we understand how our current systems are lacking, we can better prepare for the future.  In this future, we must take into account viral outbreaks and pandemics like this.

We can’t afford to lose what little ground we’ve gained.