'Different kind of crisis': overdose deaths soar

When recovering addict Arman Maddela was forced to stay at home during the pandemic, he found himself vulnerable to his old ways.

"Just being confined in that isolated environment, the thought crept back into my head that drinking and using would be at least somewhat entertaining."

It started with alcohol.

“And after a couple of weeks, that started progressing back into the painkillers again. I was back on Vicodin. I was doing that on a daily basis. And then eventually I started seeking out heroin on my own and, you know, that's when things went back into full force.”

Today, Maddela works at the Shoreline Recovery Center in San Diego, where he eventually got sober – and knows he is one of the lucky ones, as data released on Wednesday showed that a record number of Americans died of drug overdoses last year… with lockdowns making treatment difficult and more drugs laced with the powerful synthetic opioid, fentanyl.

"In the last few months alone, I personally know at least like seven or eight people who have passed away from fentanyl overdose."

While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months prior to the pandemic, the latest data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that deaths from drug overdoses leapt nearly 30% to more than 93,000 in 2020 - the highest ever recorded.

Kate Judd is program director at Shoreline.

"Just like all the other behavioral healthcare companies, we had to heed, you know, what the governor was saying and shut live treatment down and go to Zoom. We did the best that we could. We tried to make lemonade out of lemons, but it's not as effective as in person, face to face, human to human connection is."

Social distancing also reduced access to programs that offer needle exchange, opioid substitution therapy or safe injection sites where observers could deploy the overdose antidote Narcan, leaving many addicts to die alone.

And the drugs themselves became more deadly as dealers more frequently mixed fentanyl with cocaine and methamphetamine to boost their effects, health officials say.

Dr. Joshua Sharfstein, a health policy expert at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, told Reuters he estimates that on a day-to-day basis the U.S. is now seeing more overdose deaths than deaths from COVID-19, adding, (quote) "This is a different kind of crisis, and it's not going to go away as quickly."