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Pandemic may be making headlines, but opioid addiction continues to take lives

The COVID-19 pandemic had temporarily severed the production and the supply chains for fentanyl — much of the fentanyl was produced in Wuhan, China. However, fentanyl is still sold online and supplied by Mexican drug cartels, although the pandemic has made it difficult for illegal producers to access precursor chemicals. Although, despite the flow of fentanyl coming into the country, there was enough stockpiled by drug traffickers perpetuating a very serious problem of illegal fentanyl abuse. Since the start of the pandemic, the number of fentanyl-related deaths has increased.

The pandemic and the government overreach caused many treatment centers to reduce services, and in turn, countless drug users were left in the dark. The combination of isolation and lack of social support compounded the problem. The increased deaths from illegal fentanyl consumption are consistent with the overall picture of the impact of the COVID-19 epidemic. Those who are most vulnerable are suffering disproportionately. Between legal pain medication and illegal opioids, countless people become addicted to these drugs. According to Drug Rehab Services, the overall opioid prescribing rate in 2017 was 58.7 prescriptions per 100 people, and some counties had prescribing rates that were seven times higher.

Despite a decline in the number of deaths related to opioids in 2018, it began to climb again in 2019. As of 2020 and amid the pandemic, the major killer continues to be opioids. In recent years there has been an exponential growth of deaths from consumption of non-medical fentanyl. In 2016 there were over 19,000 deaths connected to fentanyl, and in 2018 this increased to 31,000 deaths. In 2019 nearly 72,000 Americans died of a drug overdose, which was an increase of 5 percent from 2018. There has been an increasing number of reports form national, state, and local media suggesting increases in opioid-related mortality because of fentanyl. According to the World Medical Health Policy, at least 30 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality. However, the ongoing problem has been overshadowed by mainstream media, politicians, and their narratives involving everything COVID-19.

The most vulnerable in our society are significantly impacted, and mental health issues are often correlated with drug abuse. Unfortunately, countless Americans have been unable to access the treatment or support they need. Those who are using drugs are resorting to less reputable suppliers, and in the drug world, this means a different version or potency of the drug being used. The pandemic has disrupted criminal supply chains from Mexico that have not been able to obtain the precursor chemicals from China to produce drugs like fentanyl and methamphetamine — resulting in drugs being produced locally again.

Illegal fentanyl coming into the states may have slowed, but people are still overdosing and dying from opioids — although other drugs like methamphetamine are still being smuggled into the country. According to U.S. Customs and Border Protection, over 100,000 pounds of methamphetamine was seized by June 2020 — at the end of 2019, it was over 68,000 pounds. Addicts are still dying, and these drugs are still overwhelming communities across the country. Once the pandemic is no longer making headline news, opioid addiction will again take its place. Unfortunately, everything caused by the pandemic has created a new epidemic with opioids.

Cori Buck is a healthcare professional and an expert in substance abuse and addiction recovery.

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