More opioid users are dying of overdoses

There’s yet another consequence to the COVID-19 pandemic: More people are dying of overdoses and fewer are being admitted for treatment in order to promote social distancing.

Health authorities report that opioid use has not increased locally, but because of social isolation, more people are using alone, making it less likely someone is around to help them in the event they overdose.

Eighty-five people died in Erie County from presumed overdoses through the first four months of the year. That’s up from 48 during the same period last year and 64 in 2018.

“They’re alone and we’re finding people too late,” said Cheryll Moore, director of the Erie County Department of Health Opioid Program. “Way too late. It is long after they’ve passed on.”

Erie County is seeing a demographic change in the people who are dying, too. Prior to the pandemic, the average victim was a white male in his late 30s. Authorities are now seeing a spike of deaths among people in their 50s. “These are people who normally, in their normal life, would not be at home right now,” said Moore.

The county has partnered with a national foundation, encouraging people to never use alone. The program allows a person to call or message someone anonymously when they are about to use drugs. If there’s a lapse in the conversation, the person on the other end of the hotline will call 911.

A change in routine has also contributed to the problem, said Moore. “This woman went to wake up her husband, who would usually be in work but their normal patterns have changed because of COVID,” Moore recounted. “She went to wake him up two hours later than normal and he had already passed.”

The rise in overdose deaths isn’t unique to Erie County “because COVID isn’t unique to Erie County,” she said. Health officials in other Western New York counties are reporting upticks in fatal overdoses, as well.

In Niagara County, 16 people have died in overdoses; last year at this time, that number was 11. People with substance abuse disorders are citing a variety of reasons, including COVID-related fear and anxiety, for the increase.

Eight people in Chautauqua County have died from overdoses so far this year. There were 15 fatal overdoses during all of 2019. The county health director has concerns about social distancing, but has warned users about the drugs being sold there because they are “heavily laced with fentanyl.”

Reduction in treatment options

Moore and others in public health fear many people will relapse during the pandemic.

To help with continued recovery, outpatient methadone check-ins, meetings like Narcotics Anonymous, and therapy appointments have moved online.

“The psychological impact — that is huge,” said Dr. Tildabeth Doscher, fellowship director for addiction medicine at the University at Buffalo. “The opposite of addiction is connection. We have not done a good job at creating connections.”

Due to how easily coronavirus can spread among large groups, the New York State Office of Addiction Service and Support released guidelines for reducing the spread or an outbreak at an in-patient facility. The recommendations include reducing admissions “to only those who [are] at very high risk of imminent harm from continued substance use” as well as providing “single patient rooms where possible.”

Deaths of despair

The pandemic is expected to increase the number of what are considered deaths of despair. That is, deaths associated with mental health, economic factors and related drug and alcohol use. In 2018, more than 181,000 people died this way, according to researchers with the Well Being Trust who analyzed data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Using predictive modeling, researchers estimate, on average, an additional 68,000 Americans could die from COVID’s impact on the economy, mental health, and related drug and alcohol use.

Research has shown a correlation between unemployment and suicide rates. During the Great Recession, a study found for each percentage point the unemployment rate increased, the rate of suicide grew by 1.6 percent.

Similarly, other researchers have found, as a county’s unemployment rate increased by one percentage point, opioid overdoses rose by 7 percent and fatal opioid-related overdoses rose by 3.6 percent.

Source: Investigative Post by Ali Ingersoll