Coronavirus pandemic creates ‘perfect storm’ for addiction in United States

Pandemic leads to rise in substance abuse

With limited access to treatment and no clear end in sight to the pandemic health experts fear worst is yet to come in fight against addiction.

LAS VEGAS – It’s been nearly 10 years since Bridgett Peterson checked into the Las Vegas Recovery Center for opioid addiction.

“It’s weird because like entering [and] being able to leave whenever you want,” Peterson laughed as she strolled through the campus grounds.

But the temptations still linger in the back of her mind.

“I still to this day talk about like sometimes my head convinces me that that's what the solution is,” Peterson said. “But to this day, I've never got to that other option — going to the doctor to try and find that that fix, you know, has not been the choice that I've made. But thinking about it, yes, absolutely, is still something that runs through my head to this day.”

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Peterson fell 30 feet during a rock-climbing accident. She underwent multiple surgeries and was prescribed opiates to help deal with the pain.

“Well, where was the line? I have no idea. I couldn't pinpoint the day. I just remember the spiral that happened when I knew I was no longer taking them for chronic pain,” Peterson said.

While Peterson was able to overcome her addiction through rehab and recovery, that was long before the global coronavirus pandemic turned everything upside down and restricted access to treatment.

"I can't even fathom not only being isolated from society and people, but family,” she added.

Isolation and uncertainty amid the pandemic compounded by the limited access to treatment have led to a rise in suspected overdoses and an increase in substance use nationwide.

Roughly 13% of Americans have started or increased substance use, including legal or illegal drugs, alcohol and prescription drugs, to “cope with stress or emotions related to COVID-19,” according to a recent study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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A report from the Washington Post citing data from the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, a federal initiative that collects data from ambulance teams, hospitals and police, found that suspected overdoses have spiked 18% in March, 29% in April and 42% in May compared with last year.

In Clark County, Nevada fentanyl-related deaths have jumped 125% compared to this point last year, according to data from Southern Nevada Health District. In 2019 there were 64 deaths, and so far this year there have been 63 fentanyl-related deaths.

“There's absolutely no doubt that the distress caused by COVID-19 is shifting people more into having addiction disorders, is worsening those that have it and is blocking people from being able to maintain recovery,” Dr. Paul Earley, president of the American Society of Addiction Medicine, said.

Treatment facilities were forced to either shut down or implement social distancing measures, including wearing masks, limiting visitations, and holding sessions over ZOOM rather than in-person due to fears of spreading the virus – all but eliminating that human element that health experts say is crucial in the recovery process.

“The COVID-19 pandemic is the perfect storm,” Earley told Fox News. “Addiction treatment requires human interaction and hope and we've had to stop the interactions associated with addiction treatment.”

Dr. Mel Pohl, chief medical officer at Las Vegas Recovery Center, had to close its treatment facility to anybody but patients and staff during the height of the pandemic and only recently started welcoming community members back to hold meetings, who will wear masks and social distance.

“I worry for patients and their families, how they're going to sustain through these times,” Dr. Pohl, said, noting that the 12 step recovery program, which is “one of the fundamental community resources for addiction” is still virtual. “Being online is not the same as being a person, you know, touching somebody and hugging them and commiserating face to face. It's just not the same thing as being on a computer."

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s most recent survey results from 2018 found that more than 20 million people needed substance use treatment in the U.S. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) was able to report some progress that same year, as drug overdose deaths dropped by about 4 percent.

But the progress made in addiction care has “taken a huge step back,” said Dr. Pohl as COVID-19 continues to strain the health care system.

“I think all bets are off as to where this is going and where it's going to end up. But I don't think that it’s going to be good,” Dr. Pohl added.

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With limited access to treatment, suspected overdoses rising, and no clear end in sight to the pandemic, doctors and addiction specialist fear the worst is yet to come.

“When there is any sort of blockade, it tends to slow things down and the COVID-19 crisis is the perfect storm of troubles in the world of addiction care in the United States,” Dr. Earley said.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's National Helpline is a free, confidential, 24/7, 365-day-a-year treatment referral and information service (in English and Spanish) for individuals and families facing mental and/or substance use disorders: 1-800-662-4357

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