COVID-19 pandemic contributes to increase in overdose deaths, state health officials say

By: - December 8, 2020 5:50 pm

Though drug overdose-related deaths have fallen since 2017, the COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated issues that contribute to patterns of drug abuse in vulnerable people, a top Pennsylvania health official said Tuesday.

Ray Barishansky, Deputy Secretary of Health Preparedness and Community Protection and Opioid Command Center Incident Commander, provided an update on Pennsylvania’s opioid crisis. 

“We are dealing with a pandemic and an epidemic at the same time,” Barishansky said. 

Since the creation of the Opioid Command Center in January 2018, during the height of the opioid crisis, drug overdose-related deaths have fallen by nearly 20 percent in Pennsylvania, according to Barishansky. However, the trend has been flatlining since the middle of last year, continuing into 2020 and coinciding with the spread of COVID-19  — data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that overdose deaths increased by nearly 6 percent from April 2019 to April 2020.

Since 2018, more than 5,200 cases of neonatal abstinence syndrome among infants have been reported to hospitals with close to 30,000 emergency department visits for a suspected opioid overdose, and 19,000 emergency department visits for a suspected heroin overdose, Barishansky said. 

Data also shows that 12 Pennsylvanians die of an opioid overdose every day, Barishansky added. Allegheny, York, Blair, Somerset, and Centre Counties saw significant increases in overdose-related deaths from January through June. Social distancing protocols and the need to curb gatherings due to the pandemic has intensified the risk of relapse for Pennsylvanians who have struggled with addiction in the past, according to the Department of Health’s press release on opioid abuse resources. 

During Tuesday’s press conference, Barishansky was joined by Jennifer Smith, the secretary for the Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs. They spoke of the state’s efforts to control the crisis through the birth certificate fee waiver program that has enabled more than 5,000 people with opioid use disorder to access recovery resources. 

“We identified that driver’s licenses and birth certificates were typically two areas that were utilized frequently as definitive identification. The command center then made the determination based on the governor’s disaster declaration to allow the Department of Health to waive those fees,” Barishansky said. “Additional people have been able to utilize this as definitive identification to get themselves into a treatment program. Again, we consider that one of our success stories from the command center.”

Smith pointed out that the “isolating nature of the pandemic” is incredibly challenging for people struggling with substance abuse disorders, especially during the holiday season. Community support has changed extensively as COVID-19 restricts social gatherings. But the proliferation of digital channels such as Zoom and WebEx are utilized by recovery organizations across the state under the DDAP’s “Life Unites Us” initiative, Smith said. Life Unites Us connects those with drug addictions and their families with resources to combat addiction.

“Stigma keeps people from reaching out, it permeates into workplace policies, and into our communities. In some cases, stigma even exists within the substance use disorder recovery community, where those who use medication are often the target of stigmatizing attitudes,” Smith said. “Life Unites Us provides a platform for Pennsylvanians to share their stories for effectively teaching organizations how to address stigma in their communities, and provides data to show the change in behaviors throughout the state.”

Rjaa Ahmed is a Hearken Election SOS Fellow who is helping the Capital-Star cover the 2020 election. Follow her on Twitter @rjaaaaaaaaaaa.

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