Overdoses on the rise in pandemic

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COVID-19 has reversed a brief bright spot in reduced overdose deaths during the national opioid epidemic. 

"The COVID pandemic has triggered a sharp increase in our overdose deaths ... Unfortunately, we're probably not going to know the true degree of this virus for several more months,"  Sherie Schaffer, director of clinical operations for Bradford Health Services, said during the recent "Journey Series," a free weekly webinar on addiction and recovery. 

Between Feburary 2018 and February 2019, the nation experienced a 2.9 percent decline in the number of drug overdose deaths from 2017 — the first such decline in several decades, according to preliminary estimates from the National Center for Health Statistics.

In 2020, suspected overdose deaths were up 16 percent from January to April versus the same period last year. The fatal overdose rate increased 11.4 percent and non-fatal overdoses were up 18.6 percent. All figures are from an Office of National Drug Control Policy report.

In May, the trend continued with overdose cases up 8 percent in the first six days of the month.

In Alabama, there has been a 50 percent increase in alcohol use during the pandemic, as well as increased emergency room visits and opioid overdose deaths.

Stress and an inability to cope while in isolation seem to be causing the increase.

"We had reduced support groups, which are vital for some people's recoveries. AA meetings, NA meetings stopped in-person meetings. Some of them went virtual but some of them just stopped altogether," Schaffer said.

A list of virtual resources is available at www.walkerrecoverymap.org/virtual-resources, a website developed by the Walker County Health Action Partnership.

Treatment facilities also decreased admissions to allow for social distancing, and some individuals put off treatment over fears about being exposed to coronavirus, Schaffer said.

"Bradford has a detox unit in Walker County at Walker Baptist Medical Center. Because it is in a hospital, we have seen a decrease in our admissions there because people felt like they might be more at-risk if they go to a hospital or go to treatment," Schaffer said.

She added that some treatment programs reduced their hours and others shut down because of the virus.

Concerned over the increase in overdose deaths, the American Medical Association encouraged states in the spring to adopt rules that increase access to medications like methadone used to treat opioid use disorder.

Dr. Darlene Traffanstedt, medical director of the Jefferson County Department of Health, told al.com in a story published this week that drug overdose deaths in some parts of the state will exceed highs set in 2017.

During the question and answer session, Schaffer said the pandemic has had a few positive effects, including the expansion of telehealth services.

"It provided a way for people to access treatment who maybe didn't live close enough to a treatment center or couldn't make it to a brick-and-mortar facility," she said.

"The Journey Series" is based on "The Journey Day" offered in Jefferson County by the Recovery Ministries of the Episcopal Diocese of Alabama. The Recovery Ministries partnered with the Walker County Health Action Partnership to offer it in Walker County.

Originally planned as a one-day event, the virtual series was developed after the coronavirus pandemic made in-person gatherings unsafe. It will continue each Thursday through Oct. 8.

To register, visit www.walkerrecoverymap.org/journey-series.

To reach the National Drug Helpline, call (844) 289-0879.