Opinions and Legal Insights

On Overdose Awareness Day, Deaths Will Soon Top 2019 Total

August 31 marks another International Overdose Awareness Day—one dedicated to fostering a better understanding of what leads to substance use disorders and reducing the stigma clouding drug-related deaths—but this year’s occasion finds many regions reeling from an increase in overdoses in 2020.

This sharp increase across America is being blamed on the COVID-19 pandemic, as many cite the stressors that come with isolation, deep unemployment and a lack of accessible addiction programs during lockdown.

According to a recent Sienna Research Institute Poll, 59 percent of New Yorkers report knowing someone who has struggled with opioid abuse during COVID-19, and this problem has only gotten worse—in New York and across the country.

Opioid disorder studies have long correlated drug use with greater rates of infectious disease, homelessness, and unemployment—all of these made much worse by the COVID-19 crisis.

“The epidemic within a pandemic rages on,” wrote Don Levy, Siena College Research Institute (SCRI)’s director, in the Poll report.

On this International Overdose Awareness Day, families in Connecticut are coming together with purple-awareness ribbons to remember those they have lost to overdoses while trying to push for additional federal funding for programs that have been hit hard by the pandemic.

Connecticut Senator Richard Blumenthal revealed last week startling new statistics, saying “there’s been a 22 percent increase in opioid overdose deaths in 2020.”

At this rate, Blumenthal told a local NBC affiliate, Connecticut will soon surpass last year’s record of 1,200 overdose deaths.

“We’re setting records,” Blumenthal said. “Not in a good way.”

John Lally, a psychiatric nurse practitioner in Ellington, Connecticut, lost his son Tim in 2016 due to an overdose. Lally told reporters that he will be celebrating this year’s Awareness Day remembering his son’s legacy.

When asked about the intersection between the pandemic and the drug crisis, Lally told the NBC affiliate, “When people lose that connection with others, with human beings, they start feeling isolated and alone,” noting that these are stressful times for everyone, but that the stressors could be more intensely felt by those battling substance-use disorders.

Connecticut is not the only state reeling from opioid overdoses.

In Maine, the first three months of 2020 saw a 23 percent uptick in overdoses from the last quarter of 2019, putting Maine on track to exceed the 418 overdose deaths in 2017—its deadliest year on record.

Arizona’s pandemic-related stay-at-home orders went into effect at the end of March, followed by a subsequent spike in overdose deaths in April and May. Tucson.com attributes these deaths to the “reduced opportunities for assistance and care, including volunteer groups and other social services that have been negatively impacted by COVID-19.”

New Jersey has seen recent opioid overdoses already reach a point 20 percent higher this year than last year, while West Virginia is also seeing a “substantial increase” of overdoses in 2020 compared to 2019.

And in Denver, Co., there has been an 83 percent increase in overdose deaths in the first half of 2020, while the number of fentanyl-related overdose deaths increased 354 percent in that same timeframe.

Clearly, advocates say more has to be done to help substance use disorder sufferers, noting that opioid outreach efforts have been difficult during the pandemic.

To try to ensure that sufferers are getting the outreach they need, one county in Maryland has gotten creative in its ways to help those with drug addictions, the Capital Gazette reports.

Since patients can’t come into treatment facilities due to the coronavirus, county health workers will go to them in a “wellmobile” — an outfitted bus that passes out Narcan, a nasal spray that can reverse the effects of an overdose.

“We saw a situation with COVID-19 where [the virus] came and we were unable to meet people where they are,” Kevin Simmons, Annapolis, Md., emergency management director said.

“We would go out in the community and do outreach but once the governor declared a safer at home order, a lot of our programs weren’t able to [operate].”

Because of the “wellmobile,” the health workers can also administer buprenorphine and provide fentanyl test strips to reduce the risk of overdose for individuals who are not yet committed to treatment, the Capital Gazette details.

In Wellsville, Ny., the community is coming together tonight to remember loved ones and advocate for “understanding, compassion, and change.”

“By coming together to remember them, we stand together to say that more needs to be done to end overdose in our community,” Stacey O’Dell, Opioid Committee Member and Prevention Educator for Steuben Council on Addictions, told Wellsville Daily.

Overdose can affect anybody and one of the messages of this day is that the people who overdose are our sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, brothers and sisters – they are loved and they are missed,” O’Dell concluded.

Additional Reading: Native Americans Died of Opioids At High Rates

Andrea Cipriano is a staff writer for TCR.