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After years of improvement, opioid overdose deaths increase during the pandemic

A public health crisis shadowed by another public health crisis?
Posted at 12:23 PM, Jun 17, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-17 18:37:20-04

(WXYZ) — In 2019, the state of Michigan was celebrating. Opioid-related overdose deaths had decreased by 13.2% from the year before, which had also seen decreases of its own. But then the pandemic hit.

"No doubt, opioid-related overdoses have increased," said Chad Brummett, an anesthesiologist and pain physician at University of Michigan and the Co-Director of the Opioid Prescribing Engagement Network (OPEN).

While 2020 data is still preliminary, in the first half of the year, opioid-related overdose deaths increased by 20%. They rose from 874 in January-to-June of 2019 to 1,045 during the same period in 2020.

"I think it was disheartening to see the increase in overdoses after years of improvement," said Brummett.

The rise in deaths is blamed on isolation, economic uncertainty, and a pause in easy access to health care. The pandemic hurt many aspects of normal life. And it also brought new challenges to the state’s response to an ongoing health opioid crisis.

"When you remove these social supports, along with limited access to certain types of care it can be devastating," said Gina Dahlem a clinical associate professor at University of Michigan's School of Nursing.

In June of 2020, the state created a portal to make it easier to distribute Naloxone, a drug that blocks the effects of opioids.

"That has allowed community organizations to order in bulk and have that available to their staff or participants," said Amy Dolinky the senior advisor for Michigan’s Opioid Strategy.

Since then the state has distributed more than 100,000 kits. It has also partnered with Next Nalaxone to allow individuals to place orders.

"All of that is free to the community," said Dolinky.

While Naloxone has played a critical role nationally in reducing overdose deaths, it had shortcomings at the height of the pandemic when many were alone, and therefore using by themselves.

"If you’re using alone this can be very dangerous," said Dahlem. "Because there is no one there to help you."

Advocates and the state also acknowledge that while Naloxone is an amazing resource it should not be the only solution. Much of the work around the state’s opioid crisis has also focused on early interventions like decreasing physician reliance on opioid prescriptions.

In 2017, Michigan OPEN, an organization that tries to minimize the opioid epidemic in the state, found that doctors were prescribing 50 to 75 percent more addictive painkillers than they needed to.

Brummett, the organization's co-director, said there is a fear that COVID — specifically long-COVID — can hurt progress in changing this stat.

"I certainly know that among people with long-haul COVID many of them describe pain, fatigue and troubles, and headache," said Brummett.

This is particularly of note to the state and other advocates, who highlight the racial discrepancies that have overlayed both the pandemic and the opioid crisis.

"Those who have experienced the greatest burden [with the opioid crisis], it’s a similar population to those who have been affected by the pandemic," said Dahlem.

In 2019, for example, while the opioid overdose mortality rates among white residents decreased by 16.9 percent, it increased by 0.7 percent for Black residents.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services plans to launch a new website in the coming months that will allow you to track opioid and overdoses in each community.