By John Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health
The COVID-19 pandemic — responsible already for more than 16 million infections and 300,000 deaths in the United States —arrives at a time that the nation is still battling another crisis: the rising rates of fatal overdose from opioids and other drugs. Drug-related deaths have skyrocketed in the past few decades to levels that are four times greater than in the 1990s. Unintentional injuries—which include overdose deaths—are now the third leading cause of death in the country.
The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to make the overdose crisis worse. Even before the pandemic began, only a minority of people with opioid use disorder (OUD) received evidencebased treatment with medications, and many people who use drugs struggled to get access to lifesaving harm reduction services like syringe service programs. Early reports show that states are already cutting budgets for these critical substance use services as attention is turned to combatting the COVID-19 pandemic.
However, with the recent economic downturn, even more people may be in need of harm reduction, treatment, and other substance use resources than before. Historically high unemployment rates and preventative physical distancing measures have also exacerbated social isolation and despair, known risk factors for substance use disorders. Many models indicate that COVID-19 will cause increases in suicides, substance use, and overdose deaths.