Opioid deaths accelerated during the pandemic, lockdowns fueling an unintended outcome

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, an average of 128 Americans died each day from opioid overdoses. That number marked a decrease in deaths after several years of intense efforts to slow the trend.

Opioid misuse has been a threat since the 1980s and researchers say trends can be measured in three different waves. The first wave was a shift in pain management practices that led to prescription abuse. It was followed by a wave of heroin use. Now, the third wave is marked by a rise in synthetic drugs like fentanyl, a powerful opiate with a high risk of addiction. Synthetic opioids are now the primary driver of overdose deaths.

Beginning in 2016, Pennsylvania initiated programs to combat opioid abuse. Researchers say progress was being made until the pandemic reversed the trend.

Penn State University geographers analyzed the data and discovered mitigation efforts for COVID-19 had the unintended consequence of igniting overdose deaths.

Joining Smart Talk Monday to offer insight into their findings are Brian King, Ph.D., professor and head of the department of Geography, Penn State University, Andrea Rishworth, Ph.D., postdoctoral fellow in Geography, McMaster University, Ontario, Canada, and Ruchi Patel, Ph.D., candidate in Geography and Human Dimensions of Natural Resources and the Environment at Penn State University.

Also on Monday’s program, in June, more than 99 percent of the people who died from COVID were not vaccinated. Vaccinations have slowed down considerably. A sizable portion of the population is hesitant or even downright hostile to getting vaccinated. Misinformation and disinformation have contributed to the hesitancy.

This while the Delta deviant of the virus is spreading quicker and is more transmissible.

So, what has to happen to get more people vaccinated and head off another surge of the virus?

Appearing on Monday’s Smart Talk is Pennsylvania’s Acting Physician General, Dr. Denise Johnson.

For more on public health issues plus a deeper look at the changing tide of healthcare, check out WITF’s Transforming Health, a partnership of WITF, WellSpan Health and Capital Blue Cross.