While the state and the nation have been overwhelmed by the COVID-19 pandemic, the opioid epidemic has marched along its shadow.
Preliminary data from the NC Department of Health and Human Services says that hospital emergency room visits for drug overdoses in 2020 increased 22% over the previous year.
According to DHHS, heroin overdoses were the top reason people were treated in hospital ERs for drug overdoses. “Commonly prescribed opioids” were the third-most common reason for overdoses that led to trips to the hospital.
Ben Powell of SouthLight Healthcare, a substance abuse and mental health treatment non-profit in Wake County, said he considers the COVID-19 pandemic the overarching reason for the increase, and the anxiety and social isolation that have resulted as secondary factors.
Powell is a physician assistant who runs the SouthLight opiate treatment program under the guidance of the medical director.
Another factor is the rising prevalence of fentanyl, a strong synthetic opioid, being mixed with other drugs, Powell said.
There’s increasing concern “about the mix of drugs that are being placed into illicit substances that people are buying now,” he said. Many times, people don’t know that they’re using fentanyl, he said.
Powell referenced a 2017 paper out of the National Bureau of Economic Research that said that for every 1% increase in unemployment, the opioid death rate per 100,000 increases 3.6% and the rate of opioid overdose ER visits per 100,000 increases 7%.
Information on drug overdose deaths in 2020 was not available, but the CDC said in a December press release that the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to be leading to increased deaths.
More than 81,000 people in the country died of a drug overdose in the 12 months that ended in May 2020 the CDC said, more deaths than in any 12-month period in recorded history. The data suggested that overdose deaths were increasing with the pandemic, the CDC said.
Complete data on overdose deaths over those 12 months in North Carolina was not available.
Before COVID-19 killed more than 2 million people worldwide and devastated economies, opioid addiction was the most prominent public health challenge that focused the attention of the state and the nation.