While new preliminary health data show about 100,000 Americans died of drug overdoses while COVID-19 ravaged the nation, D.C.-area health departments are among those that have been contending with the surge of drug deaths.
The numbers are still being tallied between May 2020 and April 2021, but they are expected to reach the never-before-seen milestone of 100,000 for drug overdose deaths.
“We are seeing the same trends that the nation is seeing,” said Dr. René Najera, mental health and substance use program manager with Fairfax County Health Department in Virginia.
Najera said that this year for the first two quarters, the county was outpacing last year, and the forecast is, “We are going to have more overdose deaths this year than we did last year, with more than 90% being associated with fentanyl,” he said.
Fairfax County Health Department data show that there were 94 drug overdoses deaths in 2020, 87 of which involved fentanyl.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s early data, drug overdose deaths for the time period of May 2020 and April 2021 increased 22.5% in Virginia to 2,034 deaths; 20.6% in Maryland to 2,863, and 10.7% in DC to 498.
“It is very unfortunate and it was something almost inevitable when you mix in what the pandemic brought to us — the economic strife, the uncertainty, the fear. When that happens, people self-medicate; people look for a way for life to not hurt when life hurts, and here we are,” Najera said.
Further adding to the pressure on drug overdose deaths is the reallocation of public health resources toward battling COVID-19.
“Many of us who were working on the opioid epidemic before the pandemic, we got reassigned to respond to the pandemic; and now we’re slowly getting back to the swing of things with the opioid epidemic. So the pandemic threw a wrench into public health in general and this (drug) epidemic in particular,” Najera said.
There’s hope that drug overdose deaths will decrease as the COVID-19 pandemic wanes.
“Once the economy picks back up, once people have steady jobs, once they’re no longer seeing … the deaths, the hospitalizations, etc., once life doesn’t hurt as much, then they will not be as likely to seek out self-medication with these substances,” Najera said.