Health reports are beginning to show a severe increase in opioid-related deaths across the country.
In Erie County, New York, 37 more people have died from overdoses in the first four months of 2020 than during the same period last year — more than twice last year’s number. In Cook County, Illinois, 463 more people died from overdoses than the first five months of 2019 — almost doubling the rate. Overdose deaths in Milwaukee are also up, by 50 percent compared to the first four months of 2019.
An increase in deaths of despair was expected given the isolation of the lockdowns, severe job losses, and reduced access to treatment facilities. For instance, a study from the Well Being Trust projects 75,000 additional deaths of despair due to the coronavirus. These “deaths of despair” include deaths from drug and alcohol abuse as well as suicide.
The doubling of deaths from drug overdoses, however, was more than predicted.
“Oh, goodness. That’s insane,” said Dr. Steven Aks, chief of toxicology for Cook County Health in Illinois, when he learned of the doubled numbers of deaths from drug overdoses.
People who suffer from addiction have been hit hard by the changed world brought on by the pandemic.
Under lockdown, people have been isolated from their friends, family, and workplaces. This exacerbates the problems of those who suffer from addiction, according to Christine Schuyler, the public health director of Chautauqua County, New York.
“Isolation is a trigger,” she said, “and those in recovery seem to have a higher risk of relapse.”
Disconnected from their families, people have been found days later after overdosing in their homes during lockdown.
Additionally, rehabilitation centers have reduced treatment availability in accordance with social distancing guidelines. For instance, treatment centers in New York are following guidelines from the State Office of Addiction Service and Support to limit admissions “to only those who [are] at very high risk of imminent harm from continued substance use.”
Avi Israel, the founder of a New York organization that provides support to those combating an opiate addiction, said two people working with his organization committed suicide while waiting for beds at rehabilitation centers.
“You can’t just sit around and wait for this to pass,” Israel told the Investigative Post. “With addiction, you have to be there when the person is ready, and if you’re not there to help them, they could die.”
The 13.3 percent unemployment rate and increased stress are also contributing to the rise in overdoses, which, prior to this year, had been plateauing.
Opioid overdoses and deaths of despair are only some of the fatalities incidental to the pandemic response. Inadequate cancer screenings and delayed chemotherapy treatments are projected to cause an excess of 33,890 deaths in the next year alone. People’s fears of catching the virus by going to a hospital or a doctor are leading to many more deaths, as well.
Despite these projected deaths, many governors who issued shutdown orders operated under the assumption that the only deaths they could impact through their response to the coronavirus were deaths from COVID-19 itself.
When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo was asked in March about conservatives voicing concerns about the unintended consequences of the lockdown, he said, “My mother is not expendable, and your mother is not expendable, and our brothers and sisters are not expendable.”
“And we’re not going to accept a premise that human life is disposable,” he added.
Earlier, Cuomo laid out his disregard for deaths resulting from the lockdown. “If everything we do saves just one life,” he said on March 20, “I’ll be happy.”
The problem with Cuomo’s response to the coronavirus pandemic is not only the overly-strict policies enacted, but also a larger failure of government to offer the proper care for vulnerable people. Nursing homes faced high rates of coronavirus deaths as a result of a policy requiring them to accept coronavirus patients. Similarly, people suffering from addiction are driven to further abuse and are left to fend for themselves under New York’s lockdown policies.
Government policy to address the coronavirus crisis requires a more nuanced and strategic response than ham-fisted and overbroad lockdowns and social distancing applied to everyone.