With all the support to help those struggling during the pandemic, many who still feel lost are turning to drugs as comfort.
The CDC recently released new data that shows last year was the worst year for drug overdoses since the drug epidemic began in the 1990s as more than 87,000 Americans died.
According to CDC data, overdose numbers spiked as they inched up month after month. In the year leading up to April 2020, 76,710 Americans had died of an overdose, 80,113 by May, and 82,224 by June. By September, the number of overdose deaths in our country rose to 87,203, an all-time high.
“What my team and I have seen on the streets has been pretty dire,” said Betsy Chanthapaseuth, substance misuse program supervisor for the City and County of Denver.
When Chanthapaseuth joined the Wellness Winnie, a community organization to combat drug addiction in Denver, last February, she had no idea the need she would be fulfilling. COVID-19 hit the following month and sent her work into a flurry.
“The use of substances is a coping mechanism, and so when we’re working with people, we recognize that they’re using in response to another challenge that they’re having,” she explained.
For many, the hardships endured by the pandemic led to that rise. Unemployment, grief, and isolation led to increases in depression and anxiety, and social distancing kept those who already struggled with addiction from resources meant to help.
“It’s been devastating to see the number of people that have been impacted by COVID-19,” said Chanthapaseuth.
“I really don’t see our workload going down significantly for 2021,” added Dr. Jim Caruso, the chief medical examiner in Denver. “The first couple of months of 2021 look just like 2020. The numbers are there. We’re still seeing these fentanyl-laced pills at the scenes.”
According to the CDC data, places like Florida, Louisiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and Washington D.C. have all seen their overdose numbers rise by more than 40 percent in 2020. The only state that has not seen its numbers rise over the course of the last year is South Dakota.
“All we know is what’s in the bloodstream, and I can tell you that we’re seeing a lot of mixed drug intoxications,” said Dr. Caruso.
The pandemic affected ways drugs were getting into the country, as cartels in Mexico started transporting fentanyl instead of heroin and other opiates because fentanyl is harder to detect. Its potency and danger likely contributed to more deaths, explained Dr. Caruso.
“Often, people are fooled. They think they’re buying oxycodone out on the street, and the pill contains no oxycodone and either contains 100% fentanyl or fentanyl with other drugs,” he said.