By MARCEL GEMME | Addicted.org
Before COVID-19, substance abuse was the most significant public health emergency in America for over a decade. Our country poured massive amounts of funding into prevention and treatment programs, and overdose deaths were the statistics that plastered the headlines. But throughout the last couple of months, the conversation has shifted more and more to the coronavirus, to the point where it’s virtually the only topic covered. America’s drug epidemic has fallen by the wayside.
Unfortunately, this is only true as far as the media is concerned. In truth, the drug epidemic is raging on, perhaps worse than ever, with the arrival of the coronavirus. But everything is happening so fast with COVID-19 that we don’t have all the data in yet. There have been, however, a few startling things that have emerged so far.
Several communities have reported spikes in drug overdose deaths, sparking concern among officials, and prompting some people to speak out on behalf of those struggling with addiction. The coroner’s office in Columbus, Ohio, saw 12 overdose deaths within 24 hours recently. In Jacksonville, Florida, the fire and rescue department reported a 20% increase in emergency calls related to drug overdoses. And four counties in New York so far have acknowledged increases in overdose deaths since the beginning of March.
The reason for this increase in substance abuse is likely the increase in stressors that COVID-19 brings. The Disaster Distress Hotline, a crisis hotline run by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, experienced a 338% increase in call volume between February and March. Compared to March of 2019, they’re at an 891% increase. With an unemployment rate higher than the Great Depression and the health and financial hardships American’s are experiencing, it’s not hard to imagine why the stress exists for many.
People cope with stress differently, and for some, especially those with a history of substance abuse, that can mean using drugs or alcohol.
Researchers at USC are raising concern over the sharply increased sales of alcohol since the COVID-19 pandemic began. Sales for alcoholic beverages rose by 55% in late March when compared to last year’s sales for the same period. This increase was especially true of online sales, given social distancing measures. Of course, we can’t track illicit drug consumption in this manner, but it is definitely possible it has increased too. So, this factor of COVID-19 increasing substance abuse rates makes the problem clear. But it’s only half of the problem.
The other half is that those who use drugs are at higher risk from COVID-19. Should they contract it, their immune systems are less capable of fighting off the virus. Substance abuse also leads to secondary health conditions that increase the risk of mortality from the virus. Those who use drugs sometimes smoke them or smoke cigarettes or vape. This habit means their lung function is compromised. With the virus attacking the lungs, they have a higher likelihood of having complications and requiring hospitalization or even death should they contract it.
We’re also discovering that treatment services for substance abuse are the virtual antithesis of social distancing. Rehabs are either vacant or are wondering what to do, and the people who need treatment services are in a catch-22 about whether they should risk entering treatment or continuing to use drugs. Individuals depending on medication like Suboxone and Methadone have been given up to a month’s worth of medicine to take home. Due to Coronavirus, clinics abandoned standard practice of administering daily doses to prevent abuse, giving people the opportunity to use more drugs and risk dying. COVID-19 is a real threat, but let’s not forget about America’s drug epidemic.
— Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with substance abuse for over 20 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise he utilized his website, Addicted.org, and community outreach as a way to spread awareness. His primary focus is threefold: education, prevention and rehabilitation.