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In the Shadow of COVID-19: The Opioid Epidemic in the Era of Covid

In the shadow of the COVID pandemic, our nation’s opioid epidemic has not just been obscured, it has become even more severe. Before COVID, thanks in part to bipartisan policy initiatives that prevent and treat substance use disorder, lives lost to drug overdoses declined for the first time ever from 2017 to 2018. Since then, however, the COVID pandemic has both disrupted the response to the opioid epidemic and exacerbated it in profound ways.

An unprecedented 81,230 Americans lost their lives to a drug overdose from May 2019 to May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a single year. With COVID, much of the progress made in combatting the opioid epidemic has been undone. As America emerges from the pandemic, we must recommit ourselves to fighting the greatest public health crisis that will remain in the wake of COVID: the resurgence of the opioid epidemic that is a consequence of the pandemic.

Americans – especially those suffering from substance use disorder – faced a grim reality when COVID hit. Prolonged lockdown orders reduced access to treatment, such as in person visits, counseling and medication. Social isolation and economic distress led to increases in anxiety and depression, with 40% of adults reporting struggling with mental health or substance use. And tragically, individuals suffering from mood or anxiety disorders, like anxiety and depression, are twice as likely to suffer from a substance abuse disorder.

One of the heartbreaking losses from this confluence of crises was Matthew Davidson. Only a year ago, Matthew was recovering from his heroin addiction and attending group meetings. Matthew’s life was improving. But when the pandemic hit, Matthew lost his job and began self-isolating at home. Like many Americans across the country, Matthew felt the impacts of isolation and the loss of support systems. Tragically, Matthew succumbed to an overdose last May. Matthew and the thousands of other Americans lost to drug overdoses during the past year are the hidden victims of the COVID pandemic. We must fight to prevent these tragic deaths now, while we are battling the pandemic, and we must continue the fight after the pandemic is tamed.

Tackling the opioid epidemic is a public health imperative that can, should, and must unify our deeply divided nation. Two-thirds of Americans believe that opioid abuse is a very serious problem and hundreds of Americans from across our country continue to die every day from overdoses. While there are times to debate and disagree on principles and policies where we have differences, there are also challenges so great they compel us to find common ground and work together. Defeating the COVID pandemic, reopening our economy, and combatting the opioid epidemic are national challenges that must bring us together, not divide us.

There is strong bipartisan consensus for commonsense measures to prevent and treat substance use disorder. In 2016, then Surgeon General Vivek Murthy issued the first ever report on substance use disorders, highlighting the crisis and recommending strategies to address it, including evidence-based prevention strategies and improved treatment. Then, in 2017, Governor Christie was appointed to chair the bipartisan President’s Commission on Combatting Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis. The Commission’s final report made 56 recommendations to combat the opioid crisis, all of which were endorsed by the President. And in 2018, Congress passed the SUPPORT Act, a comprehensive bipartisan bill combatting the opioid crisis. Congress worked across the political aisle then and must do so again today to fight the opioid crisis as we emerge from the COVID pandemic.

There are concrete policy initiatives that should be taken now to fight the resurgent opioid epidemic:

  • Removing outdated regulatory barriers and encouraging innovations that prevent diversion of controlled substances, such as new drug disposal technologies for home, community, and institutional settings.
  • Expanding access to treatment by removing unnecessary hurdles on providers’ ability to treat patients with evidence-based medication assisted treatment.
  • Requiring continuing medical education on opioids for all prescribers seeking a license to prescribe them.
  • Increasing use of telemedicine to expand access for underserved patient populations, especially after the successful reliance on telemedicine during the pandemic.

In addition, we must seize our best opportunity to have a lasting impact in defeating the opioid epidemic through proper use of the opioid settlement funds. The billions of dollars that will be available from the opioid settlement must be dedicated to prevention and treatment of substance use disorder. Responsible and effective deployment of these funds will help turn the tide against this crisis.

As America prepares to emerge from the COVID pandemic, it is essential that we work together to prevent a resurgent and deadly opioid crisis from remaining with us after the pandemic recedes.