A report to the U.S. Congress’ Joint Economic Committee has found that the opioid epidemic, started before the COVID-19 pandemic, will be prevalent in the United States long after COVID is gone.
Although drug overdoses seemed to be declining, 2020 brought an increase in drug overdose deaths. Based on provisional data, drug overdoses declined from November 2017 through February 2019. Starting in February, they began to rise again, the report shows, but even by November 2019, they were lower than they had been during November 2017.
Provisional data shows that, between June 2019 and June 2020, drug overdose deaths went up 20 percent. While drug overdose deaths due to prescription opioids and heroin decline, the report said, deaths from synthetic opioids like fentanyl and non-opioid drugs like cocaine and psychostimulants continue to grow.
But, said Charles Lehman of the Institute for Family Studies, it is not immediately clear how much of the 2020 rise in overdoses is a continuation of an existing trend or a consequence of the rising health crisis and economic fallout due to COVID-19.
The report argued that social distancing, quarantining, and limited capacity due to COVID-19, combined with strained healthcare resources and uncertain economic conditions, likely created conditions making illicit drug use and overdose more likely and recovery more difficult. Additionally, treatment options for opioid addiction were more difficult to access, making relapse more likely.
The report indicated that the pandemic’s effect on mental and behavioral health may not be straightforward and may have an impact years down the road. Coping behaviors in Americans like increased alcohol consumption may fall away when the pandemic is over, but health conditions caused by it may develop years after the behavior has stopped.
Regardless of the surge during the pandemic, the report said, the opioid epidemic will still be with us once the COVID-19 pandemic is gone.