There’s no denying it: COVID-19 is front and center, commanding the attention of our community and its leaders. But there’s another epidemic affecting our community and countless others across the U.S., one that has been around much longer and claimed more lives. That epidemic is opioid abuse. And our community must not forget about it. COVID-19—the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus that has been spreading throughout the U.S. and other countries—has all but shut down daily life in our country. Schools have canceled classes, restaurants and retail shops have been shuttered, and large gatherings have been banned or discouraged as Americans learn to practice physical distancing. Since its first appearance in the U.S. in January 2020, COVID-19 has infected 1,364,061 individuals and caused more than 82,000 deaths in our country, with those numbers increasing daily. By contrast, the misuse and abuse of prescription opioids and other opioid-based substances, such as heroin and fentanyl, has been an American epidemic since 2017. More than 2 million individuals in the U.S. currently suffer from opioid use disorder (OUD), and every day in the U.S., approximately 130 people die from an opioid overdose. In today’s news, however, the opioid epidemic seems almost forgotten. Instead, we are consumed with the latest news and recommendations related to COVID-19. Yet as our society grapples with this new virus, we owe it to our most vulnerable residents not to lose sight of the epidemic that has caused far more carnage. Why should we care about opioid misuse and addiction in the face of COVID-19? The reasons are simple: (1) People with OUD may be at higher risk for COVID-19 infection and death. People with OUD include some of the most vulnerable groups in our society, including those who are homeless and incarcerated. Individuals in these circumstances have limited ability to practice physical distancing, increasing their risk for COVID-19 infection. Likewise, lung diseases (such as COVID-19) increase the risk of overdose death among people taking PURPOSE: This editorial is designed to help communities stay focused on HCS activities (and the opioid epidemic in general) despite the COVID-19 epidemic in the U.S. It is intended to be placed in local/regional newspapers and on community websites. 24 opioids, meaning that people with OUD who contract COVID-19 could have more severe overdose symptoms and be more likely to die. (2) The COVID-19 epidemic has created additional barriers to seeking OUD treatment. Anyone watching the news or following social media knows that many hospitals and healthcare facilities are overwhelmed by COVID-19. This means less space for, and attention to, patients seeking help for OUD. Individuals without COVID-19 symptoms are also being encouraged to avoid healthcare facilities unless absolutely necessary, which may further discourage people with OUD from seeking treatment or asking for help. (3) COVID-19 has created an environment that might encourage opioid misuse and abuse. Almost overnight, numerous individuals are now facing un- or under-employment, placing enormous financial stress on families. This stress—combined with the anxiety of rapidly changing health guidance, the increase in unstructured time, and the lack of social connection for those in isolation—creates an environment where people with OUD may be more likely to misuse opioids or be prevented from participating in recovery activities. In these stressful and uncertain times, it’s easy to lose sight of the opioid epidemic and focus solely on COVID-19. People with OUD deserve better. As community leaders, healthcare providers, and family members, we owe it to individuals with OUD to continue addressing the opioid epidemic with strategies that have been proven to work—offering treatment, providing easy access to recovery services, and distributing naloxone (a medication for reversing opioid overdoses) to residents. One day the COVID-19 epidemic will have passed, and we will be tasked with restoring normalcy to our lives. Whether the opioid epidemic emerges from this period stronger or weaker depends on how we act now. There are two epidemics at our door. And we must fight them both.
Belinda Leslie, BSBA, PHR Administrator Portsmouth City Health Department