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Drug overdoses: The hidden epidemic in the pandemic

Suspected cases of drug overdoses soared between March and May, according to data from medical teams,hospitals and the police. According to a Washington Post report, the isolation and economic upheaval caused by the pandemic are fueling this hidden epidemic. Heather Long who co-wrote that story joins Hari Sreenivasan to discuss.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    One of the hidden epidemics in the coronavirus pandemic has been an increase in drug overdoses with suspected cases spiking significantly in March, April and May, according to data from emergency medical teams, hospitals and police.

    The Washington Post –using data and interviews– reports that as the pandemic continues, the cases of overdoses are accelerating.

    I recently spoke with Washington Post economics correspondent Heather Long about their findings.

    Heather, what has been happening with the overdose situation during the pandemic?

  • Heather Long:

    Basically, the opioid epidemic is back since we went to these stay-at-home mandates in late March and most of the country, we've started to see a really alarming spike in drug overdoses and in some cases, overdose deaths.

    What we know from the data that's available, which is mostly from 911 emergency providers, is that cases were up 18 percent in March; 29 percent percent in April; and a really stunning 42 percent in May. So even as the economy was starting to reopen, there was still this real cry for help with people turning to drugs for some sort of relief.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Has this been made worse by the social isolation?

  • Heather Long:

    That's clearly the main driver here. I think about Steven Manzo. He's a 33 year old outside Detroit, Michigan. I interviewed him in late March just after he lost his bartending job. He said to me, just sitting at home and doing nothing is anxiety ridden. We have no idea how long this will last. Unfortunately, two weeks later, he overdosed and died. And I think his situation, you can hear it. He was obviously sad about losing his job, concerned when when things would get back to normal, but what he really missed was being around people and especially being around other recovering addicts. He had struggled earlier in life with drug addiction. But all of those support networks have really been ripped away right now during this pandemic.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The funding for mental health, even pre-pandemic, was, well, to put it mildly, abysmal. How are these centers that might be a source of support for that individual or others, how are they coping through the pandemic?

  • Heather Long:

    Well, the early indications are are very alarming. I think about the Austin Recovery Network, one of the oldest providers in Austin for substance abuse treatment. They unfortunately ran out of funding and had to close some of their overnight shelters. And they've literally had men walking into their headquarters begging them to let them back in. And they don't have beds and even well-funded groups. Some of the ones that do have better funding,

    I think, of the Salvation Army has a large network of recovery centers across the country. I spoke to one outside Detroit and they said, look, our costs are up 20 percent of people wanting to come back or wanting to come to us for the first time.

    But because of health and safety and social distancing requirements, we can't have as many beds right now in our facility. You know, we can only have one person per room instead of maybe two or three. So we cannot offer enough help right now.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Where are people getting their drugs at this point? I mean, it seems that we've also seen indications that drug trafficking has decreased. The demand is suddenly down. What are people overdosing on?

  • Heather Long:

    I don't think demand is down. Basically, we're in a situation similar to what happened with toilet paper, where suddenly there was an increase in people wanting these drugs. And at the same time, the supply chain has been disrupted. There's literally reports of drugs sitting on the Mexican side of the border that just haven't been able to be moved across into the United States.

    And unfortunately, unlike toilet paper, drugs are not all the same. And so what we're seeing is people are getting things that are maybe much stronger than they're used to or a weird combination. And unfortunately, that's leading to more overdoses.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    How do we track this? How do we figure out whether this is a drug overdose? Obviously, when a person dies and if there's a toxicology report, but what's happening now?

  • Heather Long:

    That's what's so hard is we we want better data, just like we want better data on coronavirus cases and what's going on, you know, hour to hour, minute to minute with that. We would like to know the same on the on the opioid crisis and the overdoses. Unfortunately, we really don't have that as a country right now.

    The best data that we have is some counties have agreed to participate in a federal initiative where they send their 911 data in. And, you know, obviously a lot of these people in ambulances and the police, they're pretty and they've seen a lot of these overdoses. They have a pretty good sense of when something is a true overdose. And so they fill that in in their reporting. So what we've seen so far is 62 percent of counties are showing a really alarming spike in drug overdoses. But unfortunately, we don't have data for all counties.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    So what do these service providers telling you? How do we reverse this trend? Or even just slow it to stop it?

  • Heather Long:

    That's a great question. The message that I just kept hearing over and over again as we called around the country is, first of all, recognize this is happening. I think we've all been so focused on the pandemic that we've missed this epidemic.

    I think another obvious step, we hope, in Congress with this next stimulus to give some more funding to these recovery centers and treatment programs. There's a clear cry for help. And the last one, it sounds so basic, but we do have drugs available called Narcan, which can counteract an overdose. It's a lot of people call it the miracle drug. And the key is getting it into enough people's hands.

    And what we're seeing, I just learned the state of Michigan where Steve Manzo passed away, the state of Michigan has just announced that it is going to make for free Narcan available at community centers across the state. Let's hope other states follow suit.

  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Heather Long with The Washington Post, thanks so much for joining us.

  • Heather Long:

    Thank you.

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