America’s drug use crisis worsened during the pandemic

The forced isolation, interruption of treatment, and resource demands caused by the pandemic have set America back in its efforts to end the opioid epidemic.

What we observe: It’s not just opioids. The use of other substances, especially alcohol, has increased over the past year and a half, and experts say this may result in more people struggling with addiction problems.

What you say: “Addiction is a disease of isolation,” says Caleb Alexander, professor of epidemiology at Johns Hopkins University.

  • The pandemic “at least promoted isolation early on,” said Alexander. “This is really important to avoiding those in recovery.”

The big picture: The number of deaths from drug overdose reached an all-time high in 2020, according to preliminary government data. That number continued to rise through 2021, and the government estimates 99,000 people died between March 2020 and March 2021 – an increase of 31%.

  • According to an analysis by the Commonwealth Fund, about 75% of deaths in 2020 were from opioid overdose.
  • Overdose deaths increased across all demographics, but were particularly high among men, young people and people of color, according to the analysis.

Study after graduation found that Americans also drink more alcohol.

  • “When you work remotely, happy hour can start much earlier,” said Vaile Wright, senior director of healthcare innovation for the American Psychological Association.
  • “The pandemic provides just the perfect storm to fuel substance use,” she added.

Between the lines: The health departments have been strained to fight the pandemic themselves. But these are the same departments that have already tried to fight the opioid epidemic.

  • “You can only wage war on so many fronts, and health officials’ efforts to fight the pandemic have understandably forced them to back off on other important public health issues,” Alexander said.
  • “I think the overdose epidemic is Exhibit A here.”

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