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The overdose death toll hit a record 93,000 last year amid coronavirus due to pandemic instability and loss of support systems, lack of access to medical care and the increasing presence of deadly synthetic opioids, top addiction experts suggest.
“It is an excruciatingly tragic loss of life, especially when you consider where we have gone as a country and as a world where so many people are dying,” said Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at NIH, told Fox News. “We are all affected by COVID in many ways.”
Preliminary data released by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics reflects a 29.4% increase in drug overdose deaths by December 2020, or a significant increase from the roughly 72,000 deaths recorded the previous year.
IN THE PANDEMIC, DEATHS OF DRUG OVERDOSE RISK IN BLACK AMERICANS
Affect closings due to pandemics Key support systems have likely contributed to drug relapses, experts say. Meanwhile, emergency rooms otherwise equipped to treat overdoses have instead been overwhelmed with patients battling the coronavirus, Volkow said. Pandemic-related stress and social isolation likely exacerbated the severity of the addiction and led to drug use in more risky individual situations. Decades of research have also shown that stress increases the risk of relapse in those who have recovered.
A third factor due to the record deaths from drug overdose is an increasing number of deaths related to the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl, according to experts. According to Volkow, fentanyl-related deaths increased over 55% and methamphetamine-related deaths increased 46% in the 12 month period ended December 2020. More than half of methamphetamine deaths were due to a combination of drugs. Dealers seek higher profits by selling fentanyl or other fentanyl-infused drugs. People sometimes mistakenly take counterfeit drugs, adding to the increase in overdose deaths.
Fentanyl is estimated to be 100 times stronger than morphine, and small microgram doses of fentanyl can be enough to cause death.
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It is difficult to estimate the proportion of new drug users or those with a long history who are responsible for the increase in deaths because experts do not yet have this data on hand.
Dr. Akhil Anand, an addiction psychiatrist at Cleveland Clinic, provided anecdotal evidence from his experience caring for inpatients and outpatients, noting that many patients brought to the detox unit at Cleveland Clinic Lutheran Hospital for drug relapse are overwhelmed, desperate and felt guilty. Many patients were sober for a while, but pandemic closings, loss of support systems, and limited access to doctors often led to relapses.
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“Every addiction is chronic. Treatable, but chronic, “he told Fox News, emphasizing the need for consistent long-term care even for patients who have been sobre for over a decade.