CDC: Drug overdoses increased during pandemic

Published: Jul. 19, 2021 at 10:53 PM CDT
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MONTGOMERY, Ala. (WSFA) - Overdose deaths reached a record 93,000 last year in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. This is a 29% increase from the 72,000 drug overdose deaths recorded in 2019.

The Associated Press reports that the CDC reviewed death certificates to come up with the estimate for 2020 drug overdose deaths. The estimate of over 93,000 translates to an average of more than 250 deaths each day, or roughly 11 every hour.

Experts say stress brought on by the pandemic meant some turning to drugs for the first time.

“The pandemic unfortunately has started the back pedal on individuals who were either in recovery or who started using substances as a result of the pandemic,” said Shereda Finch, executive director for the Council on Substance Abuse.

“It does appear that so much of this has been in persons that were previously struggling with issues related to addiction and the problems with the pandemic really just magnified those struggles,” said Deputy State Health Officer Karen Landers.

Lockdowns and pandemic restrictions isolated those already struggling with addiction, making it harder to seek treatment.

“It was a challenge to attend a recovery meeting online, using Zoom and other platforms,” Finch said. “And many providers closed their doors.”

Finch said the Council on Substance Abuse saw a decrease in those seeking recovery during the pandemic, in part because of the difficulties that came with getting help virtually.

“That’s why we made a decision to open our doors as soon as we could possibly do that,” Finch said. “Because we know that the human touch and the value of recovering is working with people with shared experiences and it’s hard to do that through a screen.”

According to the CDC, there were 81,230 drug overdose deaths in the United States in the 12 months ending May 2020, the largest number ever recorded for a 12-month period.

During that period, drug overdoses increased more than 20% in Alabama, resulting in the state being one of 25 with the highest increase. Finch said with decreased access to opioids, people in our community are turning to a cheaper option: street drugs.

“You’re talking about the fentanyls and also meth is also another drug that is being heavily used in our communities and also the increase in heroin,” Finch said.

“That is a concern not only for adults but also for adolescents,” Finch went on to say.

This combined with a lack of treatment options available in the state, to meet the growing demand of those needing help, is a cause for concern Finch said. However, Finch added that those who want help can find it

“Recovery is possible and so we just need you to make that call,” Finch said. “There is millions of people living and thriving today as a result of getting help, but also addressing their disease of addiction.”

Fentanyl was involved in more than 60% of the overdose deaths last year, CDC data suggests. Fentanyl, which is 50 times more potent than heroin, is now frequently mixed into other widely used illicit drugs, often when the user is unaware.

There is help available for those struggling with substance abuse. To contact the Council on Substance Abuse online or call their hotline at 1-877-435-7425.

There is also a free 24/7 substance use helpline at 1-844-307-1760. This is a statewide service sponsored by the Alabama Department of Mental Health and staffed by peer recovery support specialists from the Recovery Organization of Support Specialists to help individuals navigate treatment and recovery systems.

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