The coronavirus pandemic has resulted in mass layoffs, which may be exacerbating the opioid epidemic.
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Drug overdoses in America have been trending upward for decades, and now the coronavirus pandemic appears to have exacerbated the problem as more people deal with losing their jobs.
The Centers for Disease Control last week reported there were a record 70,980 drug overdose deaths in 2019, which is a 4.8 percent increase from the year before. Fatal overdoses had declined for the first time in decades in 2018.
Drug overdoses have only accelerated during the coronavirus pandemic. According to real-time data obtained by The Washington Post, suspected overdoses rose 18 percent in March compared with last year, 29 percent in April, and 42 percent in May.
The economic shutdown caused by the coronavirus has resulted in massive layoffs and joblessness – a root cause of the drug abuse that results in overdose deaths.
The Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis looked at drug use before, during and after the Great Recession from 2005-2011 and found that people were much more likely to use drugs when unemployed.
“Illegal drug use was 18 percent for the unemployed, followed by 10 percent for part-time workers, 8 percent for full-time workers and less than 6 percent for those in the ‘other’ category, which includes retirees,” the authors of the study wrote.
More than 50 million Americans have filed for unemployment benefits since the coronavirus pandemic began in mid-March. The unemployment rate was pegged at 11.1 percent last month but was as high as 14.7 percent in April.
“An extraordinary number of people are taking opioids in one form or another and it weighs on labor force participation, largely but not exclusively on younger males, also younger women,” Powell said while testifying before the House Financial Services Committee in July 2019. “It's a national crisis, really. I mean there's the humanitarian aspect of it is completely compelling. But the economic impact is also quite substantial.”
It's not just increased drug but also the nature of the drugs being used that may be driving the increase in fatal overdoses. There is some evidence that drug dealers and traffickers have been more likely to taint their drugs, such as by mixing fentanyl in with heroin, during the coronavirus pandemic.
The United Nations said in a May report that coronavirus has disrupted the international illicit drug trade, resulting in "reductions in purity." Because of that, "drug users have consequently been switching substance (for example, from heroin to synthetic opioids)."
U.S. officials warned even before the pandemic that this practice of cutting drugs was becoming increasingly common.
“Capitalizing on the opioid epidemic and prescription drug abuse in the United States, drug trafficking organizations are now sending counterfeit pills made with fentanyl in bulk to the United States for distribution,” DEA Acting Administrator Uttam Dhillon said last November. “Counterfeit pills that contain fentanyl and fentanyl-laced heroin are responsible for thousands of opioid-related deaths in the United States each year.”