Study: Opioid overdoses spiked in 2020 compared to pre-pandemic

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Emergency department visits for drug overdoses, mental health conditions and suicide attempts were significantly higher in 2020 compared to the same period in 2019, according to a recent study.

The findings, published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry on Feb. 3, underscore the impact the coronavirus pandemic has had on the U.S. population, and the fact that the opioid epidemic never went away, but was merely overshadowed by COVID-19.

The study analyzed nearly 190 million emergency department visits, and found significantly higher rates for opioid overdoses from mid-March to October 2020 when compared against the same dates in 2019. 

Past research has shown that the social isolation from COVID-19 preventative measures, coupled with fear of contagion, may have a detrimental effect on mental health.

In addition, economic stress, including financial hardship and job loss, may worsen mental health and contribute to increases in suicide, substance use and violence.

While overall emergency department visits declined during the analysis period, the analysis found mental health conditions, intimate partner violence, suicide attempts and overdoses all remained a concern during the pandemic. 

Weekly counts of all drug and opioid overdoses increased by as much as 45 percent from mid-April to October 2020 compared with the same weeks in 2019. 

The stark increase might reflect changes in the illicit drug supply during the pandemic, and that people using opioids used them alone or in higher-risk ways, increasing the likelihood of an overdose, or that they lacked access to naloxone or other risk-reduction services — all of which are potential effects of COVID-19 mitigation measures, the study noted. 

The JAMA study echoes research from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that in December found that the rate of overdose deaths was accelerating during the pandemic, driven mainly by synthetic opioids.

The CDC at the time said illicitly manufactured fentanyl appeared to be the primary driver of the increases, rising 38.4 percent from June 2019 to 2020.

Tags Coronavirus Opioid epidemic
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