A Grim 2020 Year-End Outlook Reflects The Crushing Collision of Opioid Deaths and The Current Rise In COVID-19 Cases

Kipu CEO Blog Grim 2020

We’ve reported and commented in a number of these messages regarding the need to recognize a harsh reality: during the COVID-19 crisis, a large population is still fighting to move from addiction to recovery. For too many, it’s become a battle for survival.\

The newest trends provide no encouragement. In fact, I am frightened by where we are headed. Drug deaths have risen an average of 13 percent so far this year over last year, according to mortality data from local and state governments collected by The New York Times, covering 40 percent of the U.S. population. If this trend continues for the rest of the year, it will be the sharpest increase in annual drug deaths since 2016, when a class of synthetic opioids known as fentanyl first made significant inroads in the country’s illicit drug supply.

A story that’s far too common…

Matthew Davidson was beating his heroin addiction. The 31-year-old was attending group recovery meetings. He had a restaurant job he liked. He was a doting uncle to a baby nephew.

Then the coronavirus pandemic hit. Davidson lost his job. He started staying home alone in his apartment near Georgetown, Kentucky — depressed and “yearning for his recovery support group that had stopped gathering in person,” said his cousin Melanie Wyatt. On May 25, his girlfriend came home to find Davidson dead of a drug overdose.

Davidson was part of a surge in overdose deaths that hit Kentucky this spring. May was its deadliest month for overdoses in at least five years. At the end of August, the state had seen almost as many overdose deaths as it had in all of 2019.

Time will tell the story…

National numbers take months to tabulate, because tests and death investigations can take time even when medical examiners offices are not stretched thin by a pandemic. Last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted a count through March, the month when COVID-19 hospitalizations and deaths jumped in the Northeast and when stay-at-home orders and other virus measures began.

But here’s what we do know now: In New Jersey, where drug-related deaths had leveled off, overdose deaths in the first half of 2020 were 17 percent higher than in 2019. In Colorado, they were up by 30 percent through March. Counties across the country show similar spikes: up 35 percent in Los Angeles; 32 percent in Milwaukee; 20 percent in Harris County, Texas, home to Houston.

The full effect won’t be seen until April and May of 2021, experts say. Still the latest numbers shows deaths trending up: Nearly 74,000 overdose deaths were counted from April 2019 to March 2020, up from the 68,000 reported for the comparable period one year earlier.

“The new CDC data confirms our fears that COVID-19 is exacerbating the already devastating overdose crisis,” said Jules Netherland, who oversees research at the Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit that focuses on illicit drug use issues.