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The Numbers Are In: Drug Overdose Deaths Exploded During the Pandemic

It may not be entirely surprising to learn that drug overdose deaths increased during the pandemic. How could they not? The unprecedented stressors induced by COVID-19 would seem to logically result in higher numbers. According to Nora Volkow, MD, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), those grappling with Substance Use Disorder (SUD) diagnoses had additional challenges to face during the pandemic, including “access to medication for opiate use disorders, limited access to peer support groups, and the stress that social distancing generates.” Add to that job loss, homelessness, and the despair of having to manage a SUD in a pandemic, and you have a recipe for high risk behavior and increasing overdose deaths.

While this news is not in and of itself shocking, the data recently released from the National Center for Health Statistics shows a whopping 30% increase in drug overdose deaths from all types of drugs between October 2019 to October 2020.


“I think that number is very, very chilling,” said Volkow. More than half of those deaths came from synthetic opiates, with Fentanyl taking a lion’s share of those lives. Additionally, there was a 46% increase in overdose deaths from other drugs, mainly methamphetamine, and a 38% increase in deaths from cocaine.

As a kind of silver lining to very grim news, some government entities such as SAMHSA [the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration] and the DEA [Drug Enforcement Administration] have stepped in to provide some assistance. According to Volkow, both agencies altered policies on two of the medications that are most widely utilized and effective for treating people with an opioid use disorder, so as to prevent further overdosing and help individuals with SUDs recover. Moreover, methadone clinical procedures were relaxed to empower methadone patients to receive treatment in their homes.

Policy and change are without question very important ways in which to stem the surge of overdose deaths and implement new policies that help more people. Despite this fact, one could argue that more targeted research is also needed. Research that provides vital information to profoundly assist drug and alcohol addiction treatment facilities such as Positive Recovery to optimally treat patients when extraordinary circumstances such as global pandemics arise.

If nothing else, we at Positive Recovery echo Volkow’s sentiments, which elucidate that what the healthcare system must do is de-stigmatize SUDs and the people who struggle with them. Volkow, when discussing those who feel ashamed of and ostracized by their SUDs, claims that “they are much more likely to be discriminated [against], and this in turn interferes with a willingness to seek help when they need it, and is likely to have actually delayed their reaching out to the medical community for help.”

Destigmatizing substance use disorders has numerous impactful benefits, not the least of which is increasing people’s self-esteem and will to live. Moreover, an intentional and multi-platform approach to destigmatizing these issues enhances long term positive outcomes of patients and reduces costs dramatically.

If you or someone you love is grappling with addiction and is in need of treatment, call Positive Recovery Centers at 713-904-4699. We are experts in the treatment of alcohol and drug addiction, we are here to help, and our treatment teams are committed to the ongoing health and safety of all our patients.