It’s getting worse, not better. There were over 100,000 drug overdose deaths in the United States during the year ending in April 2021 – an increase of 28% from 2020. And about 75% of these deaths were from opioid overdose.
Almost a decade ago, the raging abuse of prescription pain medications drove manufacturers, public policy makers, and law enforcement agencies to enact multiple measures to curtail the drug supply. Even so, the problem morphed into a deadly heroin epidemic, including heroin laced with drugs like fentanyl that simulate the effect of opiates and are powerful enough to kill with small amounts.
Then, COVID-19. The pandemic exacerbated the opioid overdose crisis, and as researchers work to examine this trend, the most likely reasons include: 1) a more dangerous drug supply, 2) disruption of treatment and recovery support services, with 3) social isolation and 4) increased levels of social and economic stress.
A comprehensive response has been needed to address America’s opioid crisis. For one thing, behavioral health treatment agencies have remained open throughout the pandemic to provide lifesaving recovery care. Business as usual changed considerably and treatment programs had to quickly pivot to fill new needs. This includes implementing universal precautions, temperature checks, and COVID testing, as well as using personal protective equipment (PPE) for patients and staff, and socially distanced or telehealth treatment sessions. Meanwhile, the rates of opioid overdose continue to rise.
Harm reduction strategies are another tool in our arsenal, including the distribution of naloxone, an opioid overdose reversal medication, to those most likely to witness an opioid overdose.
Other medications, specifically methadone and buprenorphine, have been recognized as effective in treating opioid use disorder (OUD) when combined with cognitive-behavioral treatment. The bad news is that only 20% of individuals with OUD receive specialty treatment and, among these, only a third receive the evidence-based medications of methadone or buprenorphine. Innovative interventions are vital to address this treatment gap, such as providing these medications at vital touchpoints, including emergency departments and the criminal justice system. Other promising models include post-overdose response teams and peer outreach.
The good news is that the government is actively funding community services agencies like L.A. CADA to deliver needed evidence-based OUD practices, medications, and treatment. It may not make us feel better about paying our taxes next month, but it’s definitely a positive trend.
Learn how: Cognitive Behavioral Therapy Works for OUD