Will The Arrival Of A COVID Vaccine Curtail The Rise Of Overdose Deaths In Ohio’s Deadliest Year?

COVID and Ohio

Health officials and drug treatment experts were alarmed this fall to learn that 548 Ohioans had died of drug overdoses in May of 2020, the most in any month in at least 14 years. Will the vaccines help?

The Ohio Department of Health recently released some shocking preliminary figures for 2020. Along with the May 2020 overdose death count of 548, Ohio officials noted that overdose deaths in June and July also have set monthly record highs, claiming 481 and 442 lives, respectively.

County coroners are given six months to investigate and rule on overdose deaths, which means that should the trend continue, deaths are on track to break the all-time annual record of 4,854 set in 2017.

20% increase in deaths the first months of 2020, compared to 2019

The report was released this week by Harm Reduction Ohio, a Granville-based nonprofit agency that says it is the largest distributor of naloxone in Ohio and a supporter of science-based treatment over punishment and incarceration for minor drug offenders.

The rise in deaths represents a 20% increase in the first six months of 2020 compared to the same period last year, according to Harm Reduction Ohio.

Officials in Ohio, responding to surging overdoses in the face of the recent massive COVID-19 outbreaks, presented their budget for 2021-2022 this week, including $4.5 million to help build a $50 million mental health and addiction recovery center in Franklin County. This facility would include short-term beds, a walk-in clinic and inpatient treatment. In addition, the state legislature is reviewing a bill that would reduce criminal penalties for certain low-level drug offenses, and expand the use of treatment rather than automatic criminal conviction for people struggling with addiction.

“The label ‘felon’ is the stigma that keeps on giving and makes it nearly impossible for someone to prosper and live an ordinary life,” said Dennis Cauchon, president of Harm Reduction Ohio in a written statement.

No doubt, reducing the stigma a long time ago would have assisted in the battle that we’ve been fighting since the failures of the war on drugs. Harm Reduction Ohio has called the death toll from overdoses a symptom of the failed war on drugs. They link that period in history to the current overdose spike during the coronavirus pandemic — as people seek relief from job loss, despair and economic uncertainty, while finding it difficult to receive treatment.

The Ohio deaths so far this year have mainly come from rural counties, many in poorer regions of the state. This discouraging report comes as the first waves of COVID-19 vaccines make their way into the population.

James Alexander, program director at Southeast Healthcare in Columbus, Ohio, oversees a rapid response team and works with survivors and hospitals. “The pandemic has worsened social problems such as unemployment, food insecurity, kids not in school, parents out of work,” said Alexander, ”This is awful, because people don’t feel that they have any hope.”

The pandemic has focused our need for the final elimination of stigmas that derail meaningful discussion, and more importantly — funding — for addiction sufferers. We need a serious discussion on diverting more individuals into treatment rather than dumping them into the criminal justice system. And we need hope for those who, largely ignored, have suffered one of the cruelest blows leveled by COVID-19 — isolation. The vaccine is a start — and will in time return us to some idea of normal, but for some, the ‘return to normal’ will be elusive.

The problems that exist now in these communities won’t disappear with a vaccine from Pfizer or Moderna. A ravaged economy awaits. So when we ask, “will the COVID-19 vaccine curtail the rise in overdose deaths in a deadly year?” The answer is, ‘maybe.’ We are hopeful that the vaccine will put more people back to work — and on a stable road to recovery. But for too many, it is the economics of the recovery that will persist in the wake of the coronavirus era.