- Katherine Shi
When an Epidemic and Pandemic Collide
In the late 1990s, there was a sharp increase in the prescription of opioids as pain-killers. This originated from pharmaceutical companies claiming that the rate of addiction to opioid medication was very low--a claim that turned out to be horrifically wrong.
Opioid painkillers can indeed be highly addictive, and the ensuing epidemic has left a deep scars on the US population: 2018 data indicates that 128 people die every day after overdosing, and the CDC reports that the epidemic is costing $78.5 billion annually in terms of healthcare, lost productivity, addiction treatment, and criminal justice involvement. Since the first wave of the opioid epidemic in the 1990s, two more have crippled the nation. The second wave started around 2010, with rapid increases in overdose deaths involving heroin abuse, and around 2013, a third wave hit with significant increases in overdose deaths related to synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.
Even though the US healthcare industry has been prioritizing COVID-19 treatment these past six months, the opioid epidemic hasn’t gone away; in fact, the pandemic has in many ways made the situation worse. A recent analysis of 500,000 urine drug tests by Millennium Health has revealed an increase of 32% for non-prescribed fentanyl, 20% for methamphetamine, and 10% for cocaine from mid-March through May. It has also been confirmed that suspected drug overdoses have climbed 18% in the same period. With COVID-19 disrupting illicit drug supply chains, some people are turning to new dealers and drugs--a dangerous situation because more and more products are being laced with the synthetic opioid fentanyl which will only worsen the crisis. People in recovery have depended on structure and support from others, which quarantine has undoubtedly disrupted, and isolation has led more people to overdosing alone with no one nearby to help.
People of color, including African American and Latinx communities, are hit especially hard by the opioid epidemic and COVID-19 pandemic. Such groups often have accessibility issues with affordable healthcare and addiction treatment, and with the pandemic showing no signs of stopping any time soon, addiction services and public health face even more cuts. This means that for people most at risk of overdose, finding help could grow even harder. It is clearer than ever the racial inequities present in our healthcare system, and as a whole we must address the lack of accessible and affordable healthcare.
With proper funding and resourcing, creating a more resilient and robust healthcare system could potentially save millions of lives, and thousands from overdose deaths.