Since March of this year, most people have been focused on COVID-19 and its impact on society and each of us individually. Because of this, people may have lost sight of other health-related issues that continue to have a major impact. In fact, some issues – including addiction to opioids and overdose deaths from opioids – look to have gotten worse due to the pandemic.
More than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related deaths as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder. In Canada, there are similar concerns about increased opioid overdoses. In British Columbia, for example, nearly four times more people have died from suspected overdoses than from COVID-19.
What’s Driving the Increase in Opioid Deaths?
Many people are experiencing some level of anxiety, grief, isolation, financial worry, changes at home and work and ongoing feelings of uncertainty. These stressors can all contribute to increased drug use, make an existing substance use disorder (SUD) worse as well as have a negative impact on someone who is at risk of developing a SUD.
For people in recovery, structure and community are often key to maintaining sobriety. During the pandemic, those supports have been more difficult to achieve, as the need for social isolation has disrupted many traditional support networks. The lack of supports has resulted in people relapsing.
In addition, addiction services and public health resources have faced funding cuts during the pandemic. This has resulted in interruptions in outpatient treatment of patients diagnosed with opioid use disorders. For new patients seeking treatment, finding help has grown even harder.
Finally, there is more evidence of fentanyl in the nation’s illicit drug supply. Fentanyl and fentanyl compounds already exist in much of the heroin supply in the U.S. Now fentanyl is increasingly being seen in other drugs, like cocaine, methamphetamine and illicit substances masquerading as pharmaceuticals, such as Xanax and OxyContin. During the pandemic, people with SUDs sometimes turn to new dealers or unfamiliar drugs – with unforeseen and dangerous consequences.
Steps Employers and Workers Can Take
National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day
Sponsored by the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), National Prescription Drug Take-Back Day will occur Saturday, October 24, 2020.
Too often, unused prescription drugs find their way into the wrong hands. The results are often dangerous and tragic. National Prescription Take-Back Day provides an opportunity to clean out your medicine cabinet and turn in, safely and anonymously, any unwanted prescription drug. This opportunity can help prevent drug addiction and overdose deaths.
While National Prescription Take-Back Day highlights a specific day, there are many locations where you can safely dispose of prescription drugs year-round. Find one near you today.
- Employers can provide education around injury prevention and pain management to reduce the need for opioids to manage pain. LHSFNA publications include:
- Avoid drugs and alcohol as a means of dealing with stress.
- Engage in beneficial stress management behaviors, such as exercise, healthy eating, mindfulness, listening to music, engaging in leisure activities and seeking out social support from family and friends.
- Loved ones should frequently check in with family members or friends who are using drugs and should always carry naloxone.
- The Drug Enforcement Agency has expanded access to opioid-associated services through telehealth, including initial prescribing for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) by a new clinician. Many LIUNA health and welfare funds include teletherapy in their benefits.
- Attend an online support group such as Narcotics Anonymous.
[Jamie Becker is the Fund’s Director of Health Promotion.]