With focus on COVID-19, experts fear opioid crisis may worsen unseen

Opioid overdoses in Arizona spiked during the first month of the COVID-19 pandemic, and hit a high of 500 in August. Advocates worry that the epidemic, involving both prescription and illicit opioids, is both aggravated by pandemic conditions and masked by them. (Photo by K-State Research and Extension/Creative Commons)

WASHINGTON – A deadly epidemic has been on the rise this year in Arizona – but this one has drawn scant media attention.

With the world focused on COVID-19, local and national experts say a growing number of opioid overdoses and deaths is being overlooked.

“COVID-19 has taken up a lot of our space, but oftentimes it’s the way of the world,” said Maya Tatum, secretary of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy board of directors. “It takes over people’s minds and people forget.”

And, they fear, that increase may be driven in part by the upheaval the coronavirus has caused to lives and our livelihoods.

According to data collected by the Arizona Department of Health Services, verified opioid overdoses jumped from 375 in February to 479 in March, the height of pandemic-related restrictions on business and travel. At the time, it was the highest monthly number of confirmed overdoses since the state began monthly tracking in June 2017. Confirmed opioid overdoses have since risen to peak at 500 in August, before starting to move back down.

“When you restrict activities, when you isolate people, when people lose their employment, this has major effects on mental health,” said Dr. Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“For people who have substance problems, it can make them worse. For people who don’t have substance problems, it may initiate the use of substances,” she said.

It’s not just an Arizona problem: McCance-Katz and others said the same increase in overdoses has been seen nationally this year. And they may continue to increase as days go by, especially with some people being isolated in their homes, she said.

Experts also worry that people may not be getting the help and assistance they need for substance use problems, as many facilities have shut down and some officials are preoccupied with the pandemic.

“Our mental health system, our substance-use-disorder treatment system has been virtually shut down,” McCance-Katz said. “We often don’t have facilities that can do 6-foot social distancing.”

Tatum said that because of COVID-19, people are forgetting there is another public health problem – another epidemic – going on, one that has been going on for years.

The number of verified opioid deaths in Arizona has risen steadily over the past decade, from 454 in 2012 to 1,167 in 2018, the most recent year for which confirmed numbers are available from the state health department.

McCance-Katz pointed to the fact that Americans have many health issues and that there has been a “complete lack of concern or any ability of government officials to contemplate any other health risk except for COVID-19.”

“If you’re a person who has a substance problem, you may be too frightened to seek care because you are afraid you might get COVID, and if you get COVID you may have very serious health consequences, maybe even death,” she said. “So they weigh the options and they decide to forgo treatment.”

Raminta Daniulaityte, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s College of Health Solutions, said that everyone is struggling with anxiety and uncertainty related to the pandemic, and these feelings could cause someone to relapse or “engage in drug use patterns that are more dangerous.”

“With the changes because of COVID-19, those behaviors may be more difficult (to avoid) for some people who try to follow the recommendations of the pandemic,” she said.

The advocates and experts said they are trying to make sure no one else “slips through the cracks.”

Tatum said while it has been hard, there is an opportunity to support individuals with drug use disorders. McCance-Katz echoed that, adding that it is important to not forget other health issues, like the opioid epidemic, and make sure everyone gets what they need.

“We have work to do as a society to better understand these issues so that people with what really can be life-threatening conditions can get the help and care they need,” McCance-Katz said.

Olivia Munson(she/her)
News Reporter, Phoenix

Olivia Munson expects to graduate in spring 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in women and gender studies. Munson, who has reported for the D.C. Bureau, Times Media Group, The State Press and The Arizona Republic, is working in the Phoenix News Bureau.

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