In October 2017, opioid addiction—mostly due to indiscriminate prescription of painkiller medications—was declared a public health emergency in the United States. By March 2020, an even bigger health emergency—the global pandemic of COVID-19 infections—had taken public attention away from opioids. Within a year, however, it became clear that the new health crisis was fueling the old. Today, drug overdose rates have reached an all-time high.
An Unprecedented Increase in Drug Overdose
Drug addiction is responsible for many life-threatening problems. And finding treatment for addiction is often its own problem, for several reasons:
- Societal stigma (or personal pride) that says only weaklings ask for help
- Personal or societal failure to recognize addiction as an illness that needs treatment: the idea that any responsible person should be able to control their own drug use
- Fear of losing respect or a job
- Feeling too “busy” or otherwise unable to take time off for detox.
When the COVID pandemic was at its height, effective treatment was further hampered by social distancing that suspended most in-person support groups and non-emergency medical appointments. Overall pandemic stress triggered additional drug abuse and relapses. And with emergency services overwhelmed, lifesaving treatment was slower to arrive in cases of overdose. Drug-related fatalities soared.
From March 2020 to March 2021, there were 96,779 drug overdose deaths recorded in the United States—29.6 percent more than in the comparable 2019–2020 period. The April-to-April total for 2020–2021 was even higher—around 100,306 fatalities, the equivalent of one death every five minutes and a 49 percent year-to-year increase.
Opioids were the primary killers by overdose (responsible for more than twice as many deaths as the second highest offender, psychostimulants)—and the most notorious opioid was the synthetic, fentanyl.
Overdose Risk and The Rise of Fentanyl
First developed in 1959 and initially used for intravenous anesthesia, fentanyl became a substance of high concern when the 2010s saw it increasingly diverted to feed opioid addictions. Fentanyl is 50 times more potent than heroin, which makes it a high overdose risk and also less responsive to naloxone, the standard first-aid treatment for opioid overdose. And although fentanyl was a problem long before COVID-19, the same stressful pandemic realities that have hampered addiction treatment have helped fentanyl use to spread.
Plus, the synthetic drug is easy to manufacture and, due to its potency, profitable to make in small amounts. Pandemic restrictions on commerce and travel meant increased demand for such a comparatively convenient drug. To further worsen the situation, there was significant increase in black-market drugs sold as “heroin,” “methamphetamine,” or “cocaine,” when in fact they were partly or largely fentanyl—meaning a dose far more potent than expected, with a correspondingly higher risk of overdose.
Some Positive Developments
The better news is that, while the COVID crisis is far from over, vaccines and greater public health awareness have made it unlikely that things will ever return to the extreme social-isolation levels of 2020. General access to medical care has improved, support groups are meeting in person again, and advancements in virtual technology are expected to further improve access to additional options. Plus, the opioid overdose crisis is receiving fresh attention from both government and non-government organizations, promising more funding for improved treatment access and public education.
In the meantime, any individual can play a part in helping reduce drug overdose deaths:
- If someone shows overdose symptoms, call for emergency medical help immediately, even if the symptoms initially seem mild. Follow instructions and keep an eye on the person until help arrives.
- If someone else shows symptoms of addiction, don’t be afraid to express your concerns. Always show empathy, and if the other party is resistant, contact a therapist or intervention specialist to explore your other options.
- Avoid illicit drug use yourself—or, if you suspect you’re already developing a problem, consult a doctor immediately.
- Protect yourself from “life despair” that increases risk of developing substance abuse disorders. Take care of your physical health, cultivate strong relationships with others, and consider whether you should reduce work hours to spend more time on your passions. Life is only fulfilling when you live it as the unique individual you were made to be!
Addiction Treatment for Professionals in Philadelphia
Don’t wait for an overdose to happen: be proactive and get help now! It’s an old—and dangerous—myth that people with addiction have to “hit bottom” before they need treatment. If “bottom” comes in the form of an overdose, it may be too late. And as with any illness, the earlier substance use disorder is treated, the better the prospects for long-term recovery.
Providence Treatment understands that anyone can be busy and outwardly successful and still struggle with substance use disorder. We can help you take your life back. Contact us today, online or at 484.469.9592.