drug overdoses soar

Deaths of Despair: Drug Overdoses Soar During the Pandemic

by Pat Fontana

When most states issued orders to stay at home in March and April, the effect was sudden and, in many cases, devastating. People lost their jobs, were forced into isolation, and were faced with dealing with the uncertainties of the coronavirus pandemic. The COVID-19 outbreak is affecting people in different ways, including causing deaths of despair as drug overdoses soar during the pandemic.

Drug Overdoses Soar

An ongoing study conducted by the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP) found that after the counties participating in the study started shutting down:

  • 84 percent of participating counties experienced an increase in overdoses
  • There was a 17.59 percent increase in suspected overdoses when comparing the weeks prior to and following the commencement of state-mandated stay-at-home orders
  • Nationwide suspected overdoses soared 18% in March compared with last year, 29% in April and 42% in May
  • Detected overdose clusters have shifted from traditional centralized, urban locations to adjacent and surrounding suburban and rural areas
  • The number of spike alerts and the duration of overdose spikes have increased nationally.

Health officials warn that as drug overdoses soar during the pandemic, the situation is only going to get worse. They point to Florida, Texas, Pennsylvania, and New York as states that are reporting significant increases in overdoses during COVID-19.

The numbers are probably even higher than reported. Dr. Paul Christo, the Associate Professor in the Division of Pain Medicine at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, says “The number of fatalities from opioid-related overdoses could be nearly 30% higher than reported due to missing information or incomplete death records. The worst fear is that because of social isolation, people are not being found or treated immediately.”


Beginning in mid-March, states across the US began to issue stay-at-home orders. Florida’s announcement came on April 1, and suddenly, people were not allowed to go out to visit friends or family, to shop, or to even go to work unless they were considered essential personnel. The CDC and other health organizations warned against physical contact with anyone other than immediate family members. The sense of isolation that grew with the days and months of social distancing was one factor in the increase in drug overdoses during the pandemic.

Economic Loss

Sudden job loss is also a factor that has contributed to the deaths of despair. The unemployment rate soared almost immediately after stay-at-home orders were issued as companies could no longer afford to keep their employees. When the paychecks stopped, the economic loss overwhelmed many people.

The uncertainty of when – or if – people could be rehired has also been devastating to many, causing people to turn to drugs or alcohol in an attempt to relieve the stress. Unfortunately, using drugs and alcohol during such difficult times can make the situation much worse, as evidenced when we see drug overdoses soar during the pandemic.

Synthetic Opioids

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has identified three phases of the country’s opioid epidemic. The first involved prescription opioids, the second an increase in heroin use, and the third, which we are currently in, is an increase in the availability and use of synthetic opioids or fentanyl which has also led to an increase in overdoses.

Traditional supply lines have been disrupted by the coronavirus and people are seeking out new suppliers that cannot necessarily be trusted to produce safe substances. Increases in opioid-related deaths have been linked to those illegally manufactured fentanyl and fentanyl equivalents. More than 30 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality as well as ongoing concerns for those with a mental illness or substance use disorder in many areas within the state.


The isolation forced by COVID-19 shutdowns has affected people who are addicted to drugs or alcohol in many ways. Social distancing guidelines and requirements have resulted in people being home alone when they overdose, which means no one is there to call for help or to administer the antidote Narcan, which could save their life.

Social distancing and business closures have also affected the availability of in-person treatment programs. Though support groups have launched virtual meetings, many people may not have access to reliable internet access or just may not be sufficiently motivated to follow through with treatment on their own.

Stress and Deaths of Despair

National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) Director Dr. Nora Volkow says social isolation could paint a dire picture for people struggling with addiction during the pandemic. Volkow notes, “Every one of us is affected by COVID – maybe we don’t get infected, (but) we’re all anxious because of the uncertainties. How we cope with that anxiety is very much dependent on multiple factors, including our circumstances, but one of the ways that people cope with it is by taking drugs.” Unfortunately, as a result, drug overdoses soar during the pandemic.

Contact South Miami Recovery for Help During the Pandemic

Stress and isolation can take its toll, but you are not alone. During the COVID-19 outbreak, we continue to focus on providing you with the personal and affordable treatment you need when you are addicted to drugs or alcohol. We offer HIPAA-compliant telehealth services as well as a wide array of outpatient addiction treatment services to those who need it most during these uncertain times, following CDC guidelines for your health and safety. To get help during COVID-19, contact us today. Call South Miami Recovery at 305.661.0055.