Although the Biden Administration may be winning Americans’ approval for its battle against the coronavirus pandemic, drug abuse experts have expressed rising worry that federal efforts are lagging in the fight against a rising health menace: the resurgent opioid abuse and drug overdose crisis.
While overdoses for the first time might claim 100,000 U.S. lives in a single year, the national campaign to quell the opioid crisis, a top priority not that long ago, has become almost an “afterthought” for policy makers in Washington, D.C., the medical news site Stat reported:
“According to interviews with leading doctors, lobbyists, members of Congress, and multiple Biden Administration aides, proposed reforms include billions of new dollars for treatment and recovery services, a deregulation of addiction treatment medications, making many of 2020’s emergency telehealth allowances permanent, and scaling up harm-reduction offerings like needle exchanges, fentanyl test strips, and naloxone [an overdose antidote] distribution. But over a month into Biden’s presidency, it’s not clear when, or even if, a major push on addiction treatment will happen. Even if one does, it’s an open question whether it will lead to modest changes or the more radical approach some advocates say the crisis deserves.”
“Among the unrelenting death statistics flowing from the [federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in January], one grim non-Covid-19 statistic stood out: 81,003 deaths. That’s the number of people who died from drug overdoses in the 12-month period ending last June: a 20% increase and the highest number of fatal overdoses ever recorded in the U.S. in a single year. The drug deaths started spiking last spring, as the coronavirus forced shutdowns, and more recent statistics from cities throughout the U.S. and Canada show the crisis has only deepened … The pandemic has ushered in stress, isolation, and economic upheaval — all known triggers for addiction and relapse — while robbing many people of treatment options and support systems. Addiction specialists across the country told Stat the overlapping health disasters — the historic Covid-19 pandemic colliding with a preexisting drug epidemic made deadlier by the potent synthetic opioid fentanyl — have been devastating for their patients. Many have simply disappeared; some have died; others have relapsed.”
As Stat also noted in its January news article:
“Other pandemic-related factors may be increasing the death toll as well. As with other goods, supply chains for drugs have been unsettled during the pandemic. Experts said users turning to unknown suppliers can end up with counterfeit drugs that look like prescription pills but contain fentanyl, or with stimulants laced with fentanyl. With many restrooms and public spaces closed during the pandemic, people are now using drugs in more public areas, rushing, and not always taking time to use test strips that can detect fentanyl, public health workers say.”
Stat reported that lawmakers are cobbling together various plans to reinvigorate the federal assault on the opioid crisis, and hopes have not faded for significant administration assistance.
“Though Biden hasn’t yet outlined any detailed plans to address addiction issues, he has already signaled they will not be entirely back-burnered. On Inauguration Day, Biden appointed two veteran federal addiction policy officials, Regina LaBelle and Tom Coderre, as acting heads of the Office of National Drug Control Policy and the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, respectively. Soon after, he called for $4 billion in new funds for prevention and recovery programs as part of a massive, $1.9 trillion economic relief package. Biden has also made history by nominating two Cabinet secretaries openly in recovery from addiction: labor secretary nominee Marty Walsh, the Boston mayor, and interior secretary nominee Deb Haaland, the New Mexico congresswoman … And throughout the presidential campaign, Biden’s campaign touted a $125 billion, 10-year plan to address the crisis. While it was light on specifics, it did include some endorsements for policies being pushed in Congress, including elimination of the waiver needed to prescribe buprenorphine [an overdose antidote].”
In my practice, I see not only the harms that patients suffer while seeking medical services, but also the damages that can be inflicted on them by dangerous drugs, notably opioids. Big Pharma, doctors, nurses, insurers, and many others played their own awful roles in fostering this crisis. We cannot allow it to explode anew, harming far too many people with addiction, debilitation, and death. The crisis has scourged rural and ex-urban communities, flooded with millions of excess pills.
It is true that the shambolic federal response to the pandemic by the previous administration has left Biden and his people with a tsunami of problems to deal with, urgently, including the pandemic, a soggy economy, racial injustice, and a crumbling infrastructure.
Still, if experts and the public quash the coronavirus enough so the nation returns to greater normality, the problems tied to the opioid abuse and drug overdose crisis likely will only worsen. Powerful prescription painkillers and their synthetic versions, advertised and marketed with zeal and falsehoods, opened the door with their addiction and debilitation to sales and abuses of illicit street drugs. These substances are never associated with good, and they no doubt will increase problems from coast-to-coast with spiking homicides, as well as increasing gun violence and violent theft.
We have much work to do on many challenges, including to slash the harms of opioids and drug overdoses and to get this health crisis in far, far better control.