While COVID-19 has distracted attention away from the opioid epidemic, it has not diminished. Rather, the number of people fatally addicted to opioids have increased and show no sign of abating.
The 21st century opened to an avalanche of opioid prescriptions, enabled by the false idea that opioids are non-addictive for those in extreme pain. Millions of Americans became addicted in the following two decades, setting records for mortality and addiction across the country. The shift in focus to COVID-19 has drawn attention away from the opioid epidemic, while at the same time increasing those factors that make the escape drugs have to offer so appealing. Thirty-five states have seen significant increases in overdose deaths since COVID-19 began in March, and health experts estimate overdoses throughout the country may have increased as much as 30 to 40 percent.
Experts have proposed several reasons why this might be so.
A lack of social support: COVID-19 has diminished people’s ability to connect, to receive treatment, and to participate in person with support groups.
Fear of attending treatment: During COVID-19, many people have been avoiding healthcare for any reason, including addiction treatment. 41 percent of U.S. adults have delayed or avoided medical care, and this includes people seeking addiction treatment. This disconnection from treatment options has made those engaged in opioid use more in danger of overdose.
Stress: One of the key factors in drug dependence, stress mitigation and management, is more of a problem now than ever before. The stress of daily living with COVID-19 fears and restrictions, the increases in unemployment, the financial uncertainty, has sent many people to drug use. According to the National Safety Council, “One of the byproducts of this has been an increase in use of intoxicants and addictive behaviors of all types, including alcohol, marijuana and online gambling. Opioids are following the same trend: When someone has a substance use disorder, that substance is their go-to “solution” or coping mechanism in times of stress. Add in the increased presence of fentanyl – an opioid up to 100 times stronger than heroin – and you have a perfect storm for more overdoses.”
What is the employer’s role in this?
The workplace is one of the few places people can go nowadays for consistency. For employers, its is more important now than ever before for employers to offer mental health options for their employees and to be aware of the crisis in the making in the American health care and employment system.
COVID-19 and the opioid epidemic are not going away anytime soon—employers must incorporate occupational medicine and employee health into their workplace plans.