By Anika Midha
Following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the overdose epidemic, too, has reached unprecedented heights. In 2019, a record high of 70,000 overdose deaths was recorded, and has since continued the concerning upward trend. With stay-at-home orders and a lack of a virtual support infrastructure, coronavirus safety protocols have limited the support many facilities offer for recovering addicts, worsening the struggle against opioid addiction for many.
The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program data offers some insight into the state of the opioid epidemic: in March 2020, opioid overdoses increased by a staggering 18% from the previous year. In April 2020, opioid overdoses increased by 29%, and in May 2020, 42%.
According to Dr. Ayana Jordan, assistant professor and addiction psychiatrist at Yale University School of Medicine, the increase in opioid-related deaths is not surprising, as “increased isolation, financial duress of loved ones, and despair people are facing” are all contributing factors for people to turn towards substances that provide instant relief and gratification. Dr. Nora Volkow, the Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, states that “consequences of the pandemic, including stress, grief, isolation and economic insecurity, can have a detrimental impact on mental health and can increase reliance on substance use, drive progression to addiction, and increase the likelihood of overdose.”
Destiny Rozek, a resident of Long Island who has struggled with opioid addiction for the last four years states that “there was no therapy or anything to help [her]. [The detox facility] didn’t even help me find an outside place to go after and I was still sick when they let me out.”
There are countless other individuals who, like Ms. Rozek, are struggling with addiction and have no access to the support they need to recover. Ms. Rozek’s testimony highlights the severity of the lack of support. Addiction centers across the country have shut down and turned away patients as they adhere to COVID-19 safety procedures. Given the financial burden on numerous institutions, there have been mass layoffs and furloughs which both contribute to the rise in opioid use.
Addiction is often regarded as a disease of isolation. Such a disease accompanied with very little to virtually no support remotely is bound to have adverse effects on the number of overdoses. Mental health of the general population has been negatively impacted by the uncertainty, fear, and anxiety associated with these unprecedented times; in particular, vulnerable individuals who are either addicts or recovering addicts have dealt with a lack of structure and support. There are, however, options to mitigate harmful behavior.
Telemedicine, a form of remote patient care, is becoming increasingly popular among support centers as it allows for institutions to comply with COVID-19 protocols while still offering treatment. Telemedicine would provide access to virtual support groups and allow healthcare providers to monitor their drug-dependent patients. Recovery centers could continue offering their services and caring for their patients remotely, although it is important to note that many rehab facilities do require in-person treatment to effectively treat their patients.
As the pandemic ravages on, it is important to acknowledge and address the hidden opioid crisis that lurks underneath the surface. While telemedicine may not be an alternative for all forms of treatment, virtual recovery programs and counseling sessions still offer a glimmer of hope for the ongoing opioid epidemic without the risk of infection.