Is COVID-19 Causing a New Wave of Opioid-Related Deaths?  

As of March 2020, combined fatal and nonfatal drug overdoses were nearly 20 percent higher than through the same month in 2019.


One consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to be a spike in drug overdose rates.

The Washington Post reports that as of March 2020, combined fatal and nonfatal drug overdoses were nearly 20 percent higher than through the same month in 2019, according to data collected by the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program. The New York Times, which collected data directly from state and local health agencies, reported in July that fatal drug overdoses were up 13 percent compared to the first half of last year.

Physicians and harm reduction advocates say COVID-19 has disrupted medical care for substance use disorders and imposed financial crunches on treatment centers and local health agencies. Medical examiners interviewed by the Post pointed to an increase in synthetic drugs on toxicology reports.

But this COVID-19 story is really a prohibition story. While 2020's numbers, if they keep up, would likely be the worst ever, the U.S. also set a record for overdose deaths last year, according to data released by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in July. "The increase in the last few months of 2019 was steep enough to push it over the top by a little more than 200 deaths," a CDC official told Politico.

With border and port traffic reduced, drugs like heroin and cocaine, which are generally shipped in large quantities, may be harder to move into the United States right now. But synthetic drugs that are far more potent, and thus more profitable to ship in small quantities, have been a major factor in overdose deaths for years. In 2018, the CDC says that synthetic opioids such as fentanyl were involved in 68 percent of overdose deaths, an increase of 10 percent over 2017.

To the federal government's credit, COVID-19 has led to a few long overdue policy changes. In March, for example, the Drug Enforcement Administration relaxed restrictions on the prescribing of the medication-assisted therapy drugs methadone and buprenorphine, which people with opioid addiction can safely take to satisfy cravings. Doctors can now start a new patient on buprenorphine through telemedicine rather than an in-person visit, and continue an existing patient's methadone protocol through telemedicine.

There are other methods for harm reduction—even short of legalizing recreational opioid sales—such as authorizing more clean needle exchanges, passing more robust "Good Samaritan" laws to protect people who call 911 during an overdose, and allowing the construction of supervised injection facilities. Given the scale of the crisis, these potentially life-saving reforms are needed now more than ever.