August 6, 2020

COVID-19 pandemic coincides with rise of opioid overdoses

Madison, Wis. — Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, drug overdoses and related deaths have accelerated in Wisconsin and across the country.

From December 2018 to December 2019, drug overdose deaths in Wisconsin increased by 10.2 percent, according to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Over that same time period, the United States saw a 4.8 percent increase, and circumstances during the pandemic may make it worse.

Before COVID-19, fighting the opioid crisis was regular headline news. As the pandemic began in early 2020, news of the increased overdose cases was often overshadowed, according to Dr. Michael Miller, faculty in the addiction medicine fellowship program of the Department of Family Medicine and Community Health at the UW School of Medicine and Public Health

"Much of the news media has not paid attention to this urgent public health crisis due to the pandemic, but we must recognize it and do all we can to address it," he said.

Between January and June, the Madison police department received a 139 overdose calls, compared to 102 in the same time period in 2019, a 36 percent increase. To date in 2020 there have been 20 opioid-related deaths in Madison, which is on pace to easily surpass the 29 deaths associated with overdose last year.

New and stronger drugs, like Isotonitazene or "Iso," a synthetic opioid, and fentanyl, combined with the conditions created by the COVID-19 pandemic, are likely contributing factors to this hidden crisis. According to Miller the pandemic has forced people into greater social isolation and initially restricted patients from treatment programs. "Sadly, this is a perfect storm fueled by job loss and economic hardship, social isolation and ever-stronger available opioid-based illicit drugs," Miller said.