IT IS HARD to focus on more than one disaster at a time.
COVID-19, which has killed more than 300,000 Americans over the last 10 months, seems to have sapped our capacity for concern about other tragedies, but those tragedies don’t go away just because we stop thinking about them.
Some of us might have forgotten how to spell “opioids” in the midst of the pandemic, but drug overdose not only continues to be an epidemic, it has been abetted by the coronavirus plague.
In October, Virginia’s Office of the Chief Medical Examiner estimated that the state would have 2,053 deaths from drug overdoses this year, about 20 percent higher than the previous record. Fredericksburg already had a drug problem long before COVID-19. From 2007 to 2018, the city was fifth statewide in per capita overdose deaths.
Nationally, overdose deaths were up 13 percent as of July, according to The Lancet, with the rise in drug-related deaths climbing over 30 percent in some states. Since 72,000 Americans died of overdoses in 2019, we seem to be looking at a yearly toll of more than 80,000 in 2020.
These numbers are appalling, but with nearly four times that many claimed by COVID-19, many of us are suffering from epidemic fatigue.
From late January to early October, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that nearly 300,000 more Americans died than would have succumbed in a “normal” year. Only about two-thirds of those were COVID-19 fatalities. A lot of the rest of the deaths could be laid to drug overdoses.
There are obvious reasons why the pandemic is making a horrible situation worse. There’s the stress related to lost jobs, lost homes, lost loved ones and a dramatic change in how we live our lives.
In addition, human interaction has been sharply curtailed, and that might include getting access to proper treatment for drug addiction. Even before the coronavirus surfaced, the Kaiser Family Foundation stated that only 20 percent of people experiencing opioid use disorder received treatment in 2018. Common sense says that number is even lower now.
“If people are in crisis, or feeling hopeless, a lot of times they don’t want to reach out,” Heather Martinsen, the community services behavioral health and wellness supervisor for Prince William County, said in a recent interview. “We’re encouraging families and friends to check on their people, and if they’re seeing warning signs, to get trained with the NARCAN [to reverse opioid overdose] and keep that on hand.”
So wash your hands. Wear a mask. Stay 6 feet apart. Get the vaccine when you can. But while you’re at it, keep close watch on loved ones with addictions. Do what you can locally, and make sure your representatives in Richmond and Washington keep the drug epidemic on their radar screens.
Handling two epidemics at once is hard, but forgetting about a plague that will kill 80,000 of us this year is not an option.