Drug Overdoses Are On The Rise, And The Reasons Are Complicated

Drug Overdoses Are Spiking, But The Pandemic Can’t Be Our Scapegoat

White oval pills
Scary Mommy and GIPhotoStock/Getty

When my father died in 2001 from a drug overdose, he’d recently lost his job. Before he became addicted to opioids, he was a heating and air conditioning contractor, with his own business. He had a dozen or so employees, his own shop, and trucks. But by the time of his death, he’d been in and out of jail for 10 years.

He was finally able to get a friend to hire him as a shop hand, but then he was fired for selling prescription pills to his co-workers. It was December when he was fired, and he went to my grandmother for money to pay rent. I’m not sure how much she gave him, but it was enough for him to overdose in his apartment, alone. He was dead for three days before a neighbor called the police.

Sadly, his is just one of many similar stories about what’s happening in the U.S. right now with opioid addictions. According to NPR, more than 200 Americans are dying daily from drug overdoses in America, and the reasons are complicated.

According to University of Chicago economist Casey Mulligan, usually an increase in unemployment doesn’t lead to an increase in drug overdoses. But in light of COVID-19, this recession has been a little different than the usual. The CARES Act kept a lot of Americans out of poverty. It kept a lot of families from going homeless. In the case of Americans with a pre-existing drug addiction, it sometimes meant losing their job, but still having money coming in. None of the usual ways to spend money were available because most social events were canceled.

“Vacations or eating out or anything group oriented — going to a sports game, concerts, bars. And that kind of left the sort of things that you do by yourself,” Mulligan said in an interview with NPR. “Taking opioids is something that people can do by themselves.”

Looking at the above example of my father, this scenario seems almost too real. My father lost his job, but ended up with money in his pocket from my grandmother. Sadly, because of his addictions, he had burned most family and friends. He’d lost his driver’s license a couple years earlier for driving while intoxicated, so he couldn’t really go anywhere. He was left alone to do the only thing he felt he could do to cope: take opioids.

Shana Novak/Getty

Recently the CDC warned that the pandemic was leading to a rise in overdose deaths, stating that “Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.” And sadly, new research suggests communities of color were especially hard-hit.

But it’s also important to note that drug overdoses were on the rise in 2019, before the pandemic. Princeton economist Anne Case co-authored a book on deaths of despair, and she is not convinced that this rise in drug overdoses can completely be pinned on the pandemic. During an interview with NPR, Case said she believes that a bigger factor is the nationwide spread of fentanyl. “There’s this horribly dangerous, deadly drug on the market that is responsible for this explosion of drug overdoses,” Case said.

She goes on to state that Fentanyl used to be rare west of the Mississippi; however, it can now be found nationwide. York County, Pennsylvania coroner Dr. Stephen Diamantoni told Fox News that 76 percent of the county’s 145 most recent overdose cases were caused by fentanyl, adding, “Sometimes people may be purchasing drugs on the street and they believe that they’re getting pure heroin and they’re getting pure fentanyl and dying as a result of that.”

Then there’s the problem of places for opioid addicts to get help, which are also struggling in the face of the pandemic. With fundraising programs halted or changed, some may be short on the necessary funds that keep them operating. And a report by Kaiser Health News points out that many rehabilitation programs have been forced to shut down or close their doors to new residents because of short staffing due to quarantines or COVID cases among patients.

Early in the pandemic, overdoses were often touted by the Trump administration to argue against lockdown measures. In fact, economist Casey Mulligan, quoted above, was a White House economist in the Trump administration; he recently discussed his views in a working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research. However, as the U.S. is at over 430K deaths and counting from COVID-19, it seems clear that COVID-19 is something that must be taken seriously. Lockdown measures were, and still are, needed. Unfortunately, when coupled with an overdose epidemic that’s already on the rise, the measures most states put into place to get the pandemic under control put many drug addicts in a dangerous place.

As the son of someone who died from a drug addiction, I want you to know that I agree with lockdown measures. I agree with government stimulus to repair the damaged economy. But I also want us not to forget about those suffering with addiction. We can fight COVID-19 and drug overdoses simultaneously. We can.

The most recent stimulus plan included $4.25 billion for mental health services, and the argument for this inclusion was to help fight the “deaths of despair” from drug overdose. Naturally, there has not been enough time to see if these additional funds have decreased overdoses in the U.S.; my hope is that more funding will be included in the next stimulus plan.

My father’s body was not found for three days, partly because just before he died, we had an argument. I was one of the few people who still called him. I was one of the few people who still stopped by, and yet, there was this small window of time when I didn’t. I can’t help but think back on those three days, and wonder if I’d just swallowed my pride and called, or maybe stopped by, if he might still be here — getting to know his grandkids.

Right now is the time to reach out to your family and friends with addiction. Help them get connected with online support groups. Help them find resources in their area, and be there to support them as they struggle with the pandemic and its effects on their addiction.