An estimated 100,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States over a 12-month period ending in April 2021, according to the provisional data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Preventions on November 17. This was approximately a 28% increase from the same period a year earlier.
This all-time high in drug overdose deaths is driven primarily by illicit synthetic opioids, such as fentanyl. Over 75,000 of the over 100,000 overdose deaths were due specifically to opioid use, and 64,000 of those deaths were due to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl. These unfortunate statistics show that just because the COVID-19 pandemic has become the main effort in the media, legislative policy, and public health agencies, the opioid crisis has not disappeared—in fact, it has become even more precarious.
Many researchers believe that there is a direct correlation between the pandemic and increase in opioid abuse, specifically that COVID-19 disrupted health care systems (including closure of physician offices providing buprenorphine, a proven treatment for opioid use disorder) and social safety nets (such as the suspension of traditionally in-person support groups such as Alcoholics and Narcotics Anonymous) and agitated social/economic stressors which fueled the opioid epidemic. A study by Dr. Danielle Haley and Dr. Richard Saitz shows that the disparate distribution of COVID-19 cases and deaths by race/ethnicity, socioeconomic status, and neighborhood sociodemographic characteristics are known to shape disparities in substance use and access to health care. And left unaddressed, “the synergistic effects of COVID-19 and the opioid epidemic will further widen racial/ethnic and socioeconomic disparities in the health of the US population.”
So what are we doing about this worsening opioid crisis? The Biden administration has proposed a new strategy to slow the rise in drug overdose deaths. The government has taken to supporting the harm reduction strategy—providing direct aid and care to people actively using illegal drugs. For example, the Health and Human Services will support clean needle exchange programs designed to slow the spread of diseases such as HIV/AIDS and hepatitis among drug users. Additionally, federal government will provide fentanyl test strips to help drug users identify contaminated street drugs. Many cities, including New York City, are opening safe consumption sites where people would use illegal drugs under some kind of supervision to minimize the risk of overdoes. These centers will also provide naloxone to reverse overdoses and offer addiction treatment. Although the idea is rather controversial, New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi believes “giving people a safe, supportive space will save lives and bring people in from the streets, improving life for everyone involved. Overdose prevention centers are a key part of broader harm reduction."
Holding pharmaceutical companies responsible for worsening the opioid crisis through litigation will provide the settlement funds needed to help undo the harms that they have caused. Specifically, much litigation has revolved around the Sackler Family—owners of Purdue Pharma, the maker of the highly addictive painkiller OxyContin and the company accused of fueling the opioid epidemic. After a long legal battle, Purdue Pharma was dissolved in a bankruptcy settlement. In the settlement, the Sackler family will be required to pay $4.5 billion over roughly 9 years. States and municipalities will get funds dedicated to preventing and treating opioid addiction, and the settlement sets up a compensation fund that will pay some victims of drug addiction an expected $3,500 to $48,000 each. However, Judge Colleen McMahon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York recently rejected the bankruptcy settlement because of a provision that would protect members of the Sackler family from facing civil litigation of their own. Although this new ruling will perhaps delay the settlement funds from being distributed to help abate the current opioid crisis and although there have been many injustices in the legal system, we have moved in the right direction in holding big pharma companies responsible for their part in the opioid epidemic.
So, as you can see, the opioid crisis needs to be talked about more in our current environment and current situation. While the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about great devastation across the world, we still need to be mindful about how the opioid epidemic is harming many communities. We need to find empathy and compassion for all of those with opioid use disorders and help find solutions and steps towards mitigating the opioid epidemic. So please, check in on your loved ones, friends, and neighbors. We are all going through hard and challenging times right now, so be there for those around you. And if you or your loved one is struggling with substance use disorders, please call the substance abuse and mental health services administration helpline at 1-800-662-HELP, a confidential, free, 24-hour-a-day, 365-day-a-year, information service for individuals and family members facing mental and/or substance use disorders. This service provides referrals to local treatment facilities, support groups, and community-based organizations. Below is a further list of treatment and support group resources.
How to Find Treatment:
- ASAM Physician Locator
- Naltrexone Providers
- NIAAA Alcohol Treatment Navigator
- Probuphine Healthcare Provider Locator
- SAMHSA Buprenorphine Providers
- SAHHSA Treatment Locator (Including Methadone Providers)
Patient and Family Support Groups
- Dial Recovery Anonymous: 913-991-2703
- LifeRing: 800-811-4142
- Narcotics Anonymous
- National Alliance of Advocates for Buprenorphine Treatment
- National Alliance of Methadone Advocates: 212-595-6262
- Rational Recover: 530-621-4374
- Secular Organizations for Sobriety: 323-666-4295
- SMART Recover: 866-951-5357
- Women for Sobriety, Inc.: 215-536-80026