LIMA — The coronavirus pandemic distracted from another deadly epidemic: a resurgence of overdose fatalities that claimed at least 96,779 lives from March 2020 to March 2021—a new high, according to preliminary data released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and Prevention on Wednesday.
The trend upends years of progress communities like Lima have made through a combination of medication-assisted treatment, in-patient services and outpatient recovery programs, including those designed for pregnant and postpartum women suffering from substance-use disorders.
The sudden onset of the pandemic saw patients struggling to access treatment for substance-use disorders as providers relied more on telehealth.
“They don’t have a computer or a phone to be able to access that,” said Dr. Robert Zukas, a family medicine physician for Mercy Health-St. Rita’s Medical Center.
People suffering from substance-use disorders are already underserved, Zukas said, and were now under more stress due to prolonged isolation, familial and financial challenges caused by the pandemic.
The result: many coped by using more often.
Zukas joined a press briefing with The Ohio State University-Wexner Medical Center on Wednesday to discuss the pandemic’s effect on the opioid epidemic ahead of the Healthy State Alliance conference, which will train hundreds of medical professionals in the best practices for addiction medicine on Saturday.
Ohio alone saw more than 5,400 overdose deaths from March 2020 to March 2021, accounting for a 26% increase in fatal overdoses during the first 12 months of the pandemic, CDC data show.
Allen County was not spared either: an estimated 31 overdose fatalities were recorded here in 2020 compared to 12 reported the previous year, according to Ohio Department of Health data from August.
More family physicians like Zukas are seeking waivers to prescribe buprenorphine, which can treat opioid-use disorder as well as acute and chronic pain, rather than refer patients to addiction specialists.
Physicians now routinely talk to patients about the risks associated with highly addictive medications before prescribing opiates for pain relief, which Zukas said often leads patients to be more careful with the medication.
“They start to self-identify things that might lead them to believe that they have a problem with the medication,” Zukas said, “maybe timing out their doses and realizing they’re not just using it for pain anymore, that they’re using it for other things.”