Two Health Crises at Once: How the Pandemic is Impacting Addiction and Substance Abuse

woman in addiction There’s no arguing that we’re still grappling with a public health crisis. Although the common cold can develop between one to three days after viral transmission, COVID-19 has proven to be even more contagious, more serious, and more difficult to track than your average bacterial infection. And since we currently have no vaccine or cure to fight the novel coronavirus, Americans have been encouraged to stay home as much as possible — a feat made easier by widespread closures and cancelations of businesses, events, and even entire industries.

While that may be the very thing we need to slow the spread of COVID-19, it raises a number of other issues affecting millions of Americans. For one thing, forcing businesses to shutter their doors has had dire effects on unemployment and the economy as a whole. And while some organizations have successfully shifted many of their operations to remote work performed online, that hasn’t been possible across the board.

That’s especially true for those who depend on in-person meetings for their ongoing drug or alcohol recovery. Understandably, stress and anxiety have been on a huge upswing during the pandemic. And since 45% of Americans have trouble falling asleep under normal circumstances, it’s no surprise that many have turned to self-medication during these uncertain times. Sales of alcohol hit new heights during the pandemic, thanks in part to liquor stores being allowed to remain open due to their “essential” designation. As a result, brick-and-mortar alcohol sales increased by 21% year-over-year. Even online alcohol sales increased by 243% in the seven-week period ending April 18, 2020, compared to the same period just a year prior.

Of course, medically supervised detox involves 24-hour medical attention and can be extremely dangerous to deal with on your own — so keeping liquor stores operational could have actually played a part in keeping local hospitals from becoming overwhelmed in that regard. But since many alcohol and drug recovery facilities and meetings were required to operate under certain restrictions, it’s been harder for those trying to stay sober to get the support they need to do it.

And while groups like Alcoholics Anonymous did go digital as a response to the pandemic, that move, unfortunately, leaves out those who have limited access to the internet or who may not have the privacy at home required to attend virtual meetings as needed. And since alcohol-related deaths were already on the rise, it should surprise no one that the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment reported that their national helpline received a 200% surge in distress calls from those struggling with alcoholism and drug addiction (along with their family members) since the widespread lockdowns first began in March.

Clearly, drinking alone at home isn’t the only challenge many Americans are facing. Substance abuse has also skyrocketed during the COVID-19 crisis. Data from the Wisconsin Department of Health Services reveals that the state’s suspected opioid overdose number from January to May of this year totaled 2,739 — a 48% increase from that period just a year before. Kentucky has estimated that its overdose deaths between January and March increased by 25%, while West Virginia (a state notorious for its problems related to the addiction crisis) reported that the state received 923 overdose-related EMS calls in the month of May alone, representing a 50% jump from the year before.

While overdose deaths were also on an upward trajectory before the pandemic, even White House officials have admitted that overdose deaths are continuing to rise during the pandemic as a result of social isolation, depression, and anxiety. In fact, the presidential drug policy office shows a 11.4% year-over-year increase in overdose fatalities during the first four months of 2020. And since the state of Colorado has stripped at least $26 million for substance abuse prevention, awareness, and treatment from its budget next year, many experts are predicting that conditions are about to get a whole lot worse for people there. Of course, the fact that COVID-19 delayed the implementation of a federal billion-dollar research program for new addiction treatment options hasn’t helped matters. Adding insult to injury is the idea that the Trump administration plans to move forward with getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, which would effectively cause 1.2 million Americans with substance use disorders to lose healthcare coverage moving forward.

Even as businesses start to open up and smaller events can once again take place, in-person recovery meetings and treatment centers remain a bit of a question mark. In situations that are focused on health but that rely on a physically intimate group environment, it’s unclear as to what might be next and how those struggling with sobriety will be able to cope — and whether it will even be safe to seek out the help they need.

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