As the Covid-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc in the country, the opioid epidemic has been raging silently, with less coverage by the media. Unfortunately the past 2 years of the pandemic have led to sharp increases in overdose deaths. Data from 2021 now shows that drug overdoses now kill more than 100,000 people a year. These are troubling numbers. What’s going on to make the increase so severe? What do we do from here, and how do we move forward?
Several factors have been coming together which have been making the crisis worse. First, opioid production has increased. Second, Americans have less access to proper treatment. This is a dangerous combination, essentially opioids are easier to obtain, and treatment is harder to find. This is a recipe for disaster and should be reversed, but sadly isn’t.
According to The New York Times, “no other advanced nation is dealing with a comparable drug crisis…annual overdose deaths spiked 50 percent.” This 50 percent spike in deaths can be attributed to “fentanyl [being] spread in illegal markets, more people [turning] to drugs during the pandemic, and treatment facilities and other services shut[ting] down.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has shown that overdose deaths among teenagers have tripled in the past 2 years. Black teenagers in particular are being hit hard, having shown five times more deaths due to overdose in the past 2 years. According to Bloomberg, “The nonprofit group Families Against Fentanyl compiled the data from the CDC, which said 2021 figures are incomplete because drug overdose deaths have a six-month lag in reporting time.” This unfortunately suggests that the numbers for the second half of 2021 can be even higher. More and more, the toll of the pandemic is being seen within the opioid crisis.
A bipartisan congressional report released this month has shown that the epidemic costs the U.S. roughly $1 trillion a year. “Whether measured in lives or in dollars, the United States’ drug overdose epidemic should shock everyone,” the report reads. “It is unacceptable.” The report also reads that “The United States does not have the data infrastructure to adequately measure the amount of illegally manufactured synthetic opioids consumed in the United States or the number of people who use them.”
With all these factors and costs, it’s mind boggling seeing the government’s paltry attempts to try and stop the crisis. On February 10th of this year, the CDC proposed an updated guidance on how doctors should prescribe opioids for people with chronic pain. While a good step, it’s still only a proposal, and ultimately is not telling doctors to change anything, just suggesting. ABC writes that “the congressional report recommends elevating the head of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy to a cabinet level position and empowering the office to analyze trends and respond to threats more quickly.” The DEA announced that it will launch “ a new enforcement initiative aimed at dismantling illicit drug trafficking networks in communities across the country.” More government action is needed, especially as deaths continue to rise. The question that looms however, is how many more deaths will it take?