A year ago, the U.S. was in the grips of an epidemic -- the scourge of opioid addiction, with more than 70,000 lives lost to drug overdoses in 2019, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
The topic was at the center of public health, academic, and political debates.
But it was soon overshadowed by a new threat -- the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to latest research, the opioid epidemic did not disappear. Rather, it lurked in the shadows of the coronavirus pandemic, growing in strength and taking advantage of a society now more susceptible than ever.
In a large cross-sectional study published in JAMA Psychiatry on Feb. 3 that analyzed nearly 190 million emergency department (ED) visits, researchers found significantly higher rates of visits to EDs for opioid overdoses during the months of March to October 2020 when compared against the same dates in 2019. The study found that, from mid-April onward, the weekly rates of ED visits for drug overdoses increased by up to 45% when compared against the same period in 2019.
Overall ED visits for opioid overdoses were up 28.8% year over year.
While some survived these overdoses, many others were not so lucky.
“The increase in overdose deaths is concerning,” said Deb Houry, M.D., M.P.H., director of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) National Center for Injury Prevention about the rising rates of overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The CDC said in December that the rate of overdose deaths was accelerating during the pandemic, driven by synthetic opioids, which rose 38.4% during the year leading up to June 2020.
Opioid overdoses do not exist in a vacuum; rather, any force that threatens mental health leaves society more susceptible to the threat of addictions. For some, this force may be the fear of contracting COVID-19. For others, the stress of losing a job. And still others, the boredom of being trapped in your home with nothing to do.
“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said former CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield, in December.
This same JAMA Psychiatry study found that emergency department visits for mental health conditions, intimate partner violence, and child abuse and neglect increased during the same time period as did suicide attempts.
While many lives were saved with stay-at-home orders, these savings were not without cost. While vaccines appear to have provided a light at the end of this COVID-19 tunnel, America will need to face its growing problem of social isolation and mental illness in the age of the internet, experts say.
"Social distancing has forced many 12 Step programs, such as Alcoholics Anonymous, to suspend their meetings. The need for an effective treatment for substance abuse has never been greater," said Linville M. Meadows, M.D., a physician and author on addictions.
Nicholas Nissen, M.D., is a clinical fellow and resident physician in psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an ABC News Medical Unit doctor.