All across the nation, federal and local officials are reporting disturbing spikes in drug overdoses⁠ — an epidemic hidden within a global pandemic. Justifiably, the COVID-19 crisis has claimed headlines for months as populations in every part of the world struggle to contain the disease. However, researchers and authorities are now calling attention to the large number of fatal overdoses in the pandemic. Experts estimate that, in the United States, overdoses may have increased between 30–40% since the beginning of the pandemic⁠ — a staggering rise.

Areas Reporting Rise in Overdoses

Long before the COVID-19 virus spread throughout the nation, Americans have been struggling with opioid addiction and dependence in every state in the nation. The same is true today and, similar to the COVID-19 virus, the reported rise in overdoses is not limited to a single state or region. Yet, some states are facing particularly large increases in overdoses, and are taking action to combat the problem.

In Ohio, emergency rooms saw overdose-related visits increase from 2,868 in April to 3,666 in May. In response, officials are working to distribute more overdose-reversing drugs, despite limited supply chains and occupied medical professionals and first responders. In nearby Kentucky, the rate of suspected opioid-related overdoses has nearly doubled during the pandemic. There were an estimated 20 overdoses per 100,000 residents in February, which jumped to 38 overdoses per 100,000 residents in May.

Virginia and West Virginia are another two states that have been particularly hard hit with opioid overdoses since the beginning of the pandemic. The number of overdose deaths in some areas of West Virginia actually outpaced the coronavirus fatalities in March and April. In Roanoke County, Virginia, dispatchers responded to twice as many fatal overdoses in the first five months of 2020 than they did in all of 2019.

Because we are still in the pandemic and numbers can be slow to report, the true scale of opioid-related deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic is not yet known. Nevertheless, the American Medical Association has estimated that more than 35 states have already reported increases in opioid-related overdoses.

Causes for Overdose Increases

The novel coronavirus has disrupted almost every aspect of life⁠ — schools have been shut down, businesses closed, events canceled and medical treatments delayed, among many other unfortunate events. The normal rhythms of life have changed in an unprecedented manner.

While the sacrifices that people have made to combat and contain the virus have inevitably had positive effects for some, it has come at a cost. For many people who struggle with addiction and dependence, the COVID-19 pandemic has made it even more difficult to get treatment, stay sober and survive.

One reason that public health officials cite when attempting to explain the rising opioid-related deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic is the significant psychological stress of social distancing. Social isolation can lead to depression, which can trigger a relapse. The isolation method of containing the coronavirus has left many without jobs, regular structure and face-to-face socialization. Experts also observe that using drugs alone is riskier: with no one nearby to revive or call for medical attention, an overdose can lead to a deadly outcome.

In addition, the COVID-19 has disrupted illicit drug supply, making the potency of drugs less consistent⁠ — which can result in taking too much of a drug. The disruption in drug supply is not limited to illegal drugs. Overdose-reversing drugs like naloxone can be difficult for officials and institutions to get their hands on, which may add to the staggering number of overdoses this year.

Finally, it may be more difficult for people struggling with opioid addiction to get the treatment they need. Many treatment centers, drug courts and recovery programs have been forced to either close or scale back their programs and offerings during the shutdowns.

It is impossible to forecast the number of opioid-related overdoses in the months to come. As long as the pandemic continues to disrupt life in the United States, the challenges to staying sober and getting treatment will probably not go away.

What Can the States Do to Flatten the Curve?

While it will not be easy or simple, states have steps they can take to “flatten the curve” of opioid-related overdoses. One recommendation is to approve emergency funding to keep treatment programs, recovery centers and needle-exchange programs afloat. Another approach would be to ease treatment barriers. Moving in this direction, the federal government relaxed rules around prescribing methadone and buprenorphine. This action helped remove some of the red tape that could have made dispensing these medicines almost impossible, given the recommended and mandatory social distancing rules. Getting to the core of the issue, states’ efforts to contain and reduce the spread of COVID-19 could also help restore life to its normal rhythms and allocate resources to fighting the opioid epidemic.

What Can You Do if You Suspect Someone Is Overdosing?

If you think that you or someone you love is experiencing an opioid-related overdose, call 911 and seek medical attention if you observe any of the following signs:

  • Unconsciousness
  • Nearly imperceptible pupils
  • Hypoventilation
  • Vomiting or prolonged nausea
  • Inability to speak or only speaking in garbled words or phrases
  • Faint heartbeat
  • Limp extremities
  • Paleness in the face
  • Clammy skin
  • Purple or blue fingernails and lips

People experiencing an opioid overdose can also be revived using a life-saving medication called naloxone, with the brand name Narcan. Naloxone is available without a prescription in many states and can be administered to block the opioid receptors and help stop an opioid overdose until help arrives.

Medical Disclaimer: The Recovery Village aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. We publish material that is researched, cited, edited and reviewed by licensed medical professionals. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider.