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The Forgotten Epidemic

THE FORGOTTEN EPIDEMIC

The revised and finalized numbers are staggering: for the 12-month period beginning March 2020 and ending March 2021, more than 100,000 people died from a drug overdose. With estimated deaths from drug overdoses in 2019 at 70,000, the total for 2020 represents a nearly 30% increase in one year—the biggest single year increase since the opioid epidemic began in 1999. This huge increase is attributable to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl (and more recently, substances known as nitazene opioids).

The following break-down shows just how big the impact of fentanyl has been on overdose deaths:

Deaths involving cocaine: increased 21%

Deaths involving methamphetamine: increased 46%

Deaths involving fentanyl: increased 54%

Deaths involving synthetic opioids as % of all overdose deaths in 2015: 18%

by 2020: 60%

THE IMPACT OF THE PANDEMIC

It wasn’t just fentanyl that caused the sharp rise in opioid overdose deaths, however. Experts agree that the Coronavirus pandemic also contributed to the huge increase in deaths from 2019-2020. Many of the factors that can trigger relapses in substance use disorder (SUD) were present in 2020 surrounding the pandemic: social isolation due to lockdowns; financial stress due to job loss/reduced hours/illness; emotional stress due to loved ones being ill or dying, or personal illness; physical stress due to SUD treatment being disrupted or more difficult to access due to the pandemic; and supply chain disruptions of many basic goods in general. All of these factors created a tense environment that led to an increase in substance use for many people; for people with an existing SUD, it could easily lead to disaster.

THE WAY FORWARD

The pandemic has had positive impacts on the opioid crisis, too, though. Recent spending bills needed to help revive an economy weakened by almost two years of dealing with the Coronavirus have allocated billions to substance use disorder programs. This federal funding will help to take the burden off of states when addressing the enormous problem of addiction. The pandemic legislation also creates incentives for the 13 states that haven’t yet expanded Medicaid to do so. Medicaid can play a vital role in treating substance use disorders, since Medicaid often covers mental health and addiction counseling.

Crucially, the pandemic allowed regulatory flexibility for medically assisted treatment (MAT) options such as methadone and buprenorphine. These MATs normally require in-person clinic or facility visits but telemedicine visits and take-home prescriptions were allowed during Covid. If this flexibility becomes permanent, it would make MAT more accessible to those who previously had transportation problems, conflicts with work schedules, fear of stigma, or other problems with in-person appointments.

Finally, the Covid legislation and funding could increase access to naloxone, the rescue drug that all people with SUDs should have readily available.

CONTACT YOUR ATTORNEY

If you or someone you know suffers from a substance use disorder, contact Dave Thomas at The Thomas Law Firm for a free consultation regarding your legal rights. Also contact SAMHSA’s National Helpline: 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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Thomas Law Firm
Located at 945 East Paces Ferry Road, Resurgens Plaza, GA 30326.

Phone: (678) 264-8348.
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