WICHITA, Kan. (KSNW) — The number of Americans dying from overdoses is at a record high during the coronavirus pandemic. According to the CDC, there have been more than 81,000 overdoses from May 2019 to May 2020. That’s 18% higher than the year before.
“Those who overdose tend to be folks who are unemployed and live alone or live in poverty — so it makes sense that we would see an increase,” explained Michelle Calvert, COMCARE’S Director of Quality and Strategic Innovation.
Dr. Gregory Lakin with the Center for Change has been working in addiction treatment for more than 20 years, he says the pandemic created a perfect storm for people. “With the added anxiety and stress and isolation, of course, there are more people who have turned to drugs,” said Dr. Lakin. “There are more people that have turned to alcohol and so we have to deal with that and it’s going to be at a level never seen before as well.”
Overdoses related to opioids made up the vast majority of overdose cases. “It isn’t due to an increase in prescription pills, it’s due to this synthetic fentanyl, carfentanil, these things that show up in pressed pills,” Dr. Lakin added. “They’re illegal counterfeit pills and they’re all over the street now,” he said.
When the pandemic started, there was a decrease in people reaching out for help with both addiction and mental health. “That was really persistent during the pandemic and when we saw people coming in the door. We tended to see people who were just kind of more mentally ill, just kind of sicker in general,” Calvert said.
“I mean people have avoided medical care as a whole during this time and so I think we’re seeing that now it’s starting to show itself,” Dr. Lakin stated.
While vaccines are offering relief in the pandemic, efforts to combat deaths of despair caused by the stresses of the pandemic are just ramping up. “We’ll be working on this problem for years to come,” Dr. Lakin said.
“We anticipate that mental health needs have gone up. We anticipate that they’ll continue to go up, and there will be an increased need for services,” Calvert said. “We really encourage people to reach out for help and not just reach out for help but notice if others need help as well — so ask people how they’re doing, connect them to resources, it’s not just about you, but it’s about how you can help others too.”