Drug Overdoses Surging Due to Coronavirus

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The American Medical Association reports that there has been an alarming increase in overdose deaths as an indirect result of the coronavirus. They note that social distancing measures and stay-at-home orders have isolated many people who were in addiction recovery programs, increasing their risk for relapse. Opioids are to blame for the majority of these overdoses, in particular fentanyl.

Although there aren’t any official figures from recent months, the AMA monitors local and state news reports. In the report linked above, they say, “More than 35 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder in counties and other areas within the state.” One national program that monitors drug overdoses, called ODMAP (Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program), has also been paying close attention to how overdose figures have been affected by the pandemic. They report: “Since the first reported case of COVID-19, suspected overdose submissions display an average increase of 20% when compared to the same time-period during the previous year.” Since this is the average, specific localities report higher or lower figures. For example, in March and April the EMS Division in Milwaukee County responded to 54% more overdose calls when compared to the same months last year.

Although many treatment centers have remained open throughout the pandemic, the number of people coming to them dropped: “Marvin Ventrell, CEO of the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, said many of its roughly 1,000 members saw their patient numbers down by as much as 40% to 50% in March and April before bouncing back to 80%.” Some treatment centers have had to close. The Salvation Army, for example, has had to close a few of its rehab centers, since they are directly funded by their resale stores, which had to close due to the pandemic. Some drug treatment centers did experience outbreaks of the virus.

As an article in the American Journal of Managed Care phrases the problem, “The arrival of the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has provided an unanticipated haven for the already formidable opioid epidemic. COVID-19–related protective shelter-in-place orders have pushed individuals battling sobriety into isolation and have decreased access to treatment and opportunity for distraction from addictions. The addiction community is raising alarms that the current epidemiological climate alone is a risk factor for substance abuse relapse, prompting the New York Times to label the coronavirus pandemic ‘a national relapse trigger.’ Thus, social distancing is potentially concealing a surge of opioid abuse, and resulting morbidity and mortality, larger than any we saw before.”

An article published on the Wexner Medical Center (Ohio) website provides additional reasons for the rise in overdoses: “Boredom and loneliness can be triggers for addiction, and additional stressors such as job loss and/or decreased income can contribute to relapse of addictive disorders. Individuals who haven’t used substances in a while, such as those being released from correctional facilities, are at higher risk for overdose. In addition, people may be using alone due to social distancing, rather than with someone who could call 911 and administer a Narcan kit that contains naloxone, the opioid-overdose antidote.”

Having a close social bond with people who can give support is essential for someone who is trying to break an addiction. Many support groups took advantage of technology to host digital meetings, using software such as Zoom or Skype. As a PBS report says, however, there are problems with the lack of in-person meeting: “But for those without a smartphone, computer or sufficient data plan—lower income people who may already be more vulnerable to other aspects of the COVID-19 crisis, for instance—such a platform can be a barrier to help.” Additionally, in a conference call it may be more difficult to tell if someone has been drinking or doing drugs, and it can be difficult to sense someone’s body language to know when they need extra support.

In addition to relapse, it is not difficult to imagine that those who lost their jobs, businesses, or loved ones might turn to drugs and alcohol as an escape from these sudden and unexpected stresses. There isn’t any data about this, but it would make sense. During a time of extraordinary stress, the normal ways that people cope may not be sufficient. Turning to alcohol or prescription pain medication may seem like the best way to dull the pain. Additionally, being home more often without the usual forms of entertainment may lead some to drink more often than they would under normal conditions. People working from home might feel comfortable drinking or doing drugs while on the job. All of these could easily lead to long-term addictions and unhealthy patterns.

Indeed, alcohol sales spiked as people prepared to be spending more time at home. As the Nielson Group pointed out, this was counterbalanced in part by the closing of bars and restaurants. Those who only drink socially will probably be drinking less. But for others who lack an adequate support system and are more prone to addiction, the isolation could prove deadly.

The Solution

Medical services are focusing on how to reverse this trend. They want to get Narcan and other medicines that reverse overdoses into communities that have been particularly affected. Support groups have been trying to reach out and stay in touch with their members through digital and telephone communication. They urge community support: although they advocate keeping a physical distance, they point out that this doesn’t mean to keep isolated. People who are battling addiction need a strong social safety net, which is made more difficult, but by no means impossible, because of social distancing/stay-at-home orders. The AMA and DEA have released some guidelines for legislators, advising them, for example, to relax the rule that requires addiction patients to talk with a doctor in person before they can be prescribed certain medication.

However, all of this only addresses the surface issues of drug and alcohol addiction. The real problem is spiritual. Blaise Pascal famously noted that there is a God-shaped hole inside every human being. Some people try to fill that hole with the things of this world: money, drugs, relationships. In the end, none of these will ever satisfy.

This is the problem which Christian drug rehab programs address. For example, here is how the Adult & Teen Challenge group puts it: “A restored relationship with God can transform those who suffer from addiction into vibrant, free, and sober followers of the Lord. . . . Addiction starts as a way to fulfill a void that only God can fill, so a strong relationship with the Lord is foundational to our program. This foundation is built in our students by teaching them the Word of God and by encouraging them to bond with other growing disciples.”

If you are struggling with addiction to drugs or alcohol, the healing power of God can change your life. He can give you a new heart which finds its satisfaction in Him. Get involved in a Christian community that can support you, especially a rehab group like Adult & Teen Challenge. If someone you know is struggling, encourage them to get closer to God and to allow the peace and healing power of Yeshua (Jesus) to change their lives. Be an encouragement and a support to them, acting as a channel of Yeshua’s love. And if you are feeling anxious, discouraged, or alone due to the current situation in our world, know that God is in control and we can trust Him with our lives. Nothing in this world can give us a peace that lasts. Only Yeshua can do that, and He is more than willing to do so if you turn to Him with all your heart.

Phone Services

  • For medical emergencies, call 911
  • National Drug Helpline: 1-844-289-0879
  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) national helpline: 1-800-662-4357
  • Adult & Teen Challenge Christian rehab centers (general information): 417-581-2181
  • For parents of adolescents/teens: 1-855-DRUGFREE (1-855-378-4373)


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