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March 26, 2022

Overdose deaths: ‘A perfect storm of two pandemics’

Credit: Newsday, Michael O’Keefe

Hundreds of Long Islanders were among the more than 100,000 Americans who died of opioid overdoses during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the first time that overdose deaths topped 100,000 during a 12-month period, statistics show.

“Every one of those numbers is a life,” said Cari Besserman, director of Suffolk County’s Mental Hygiene Services, “and every one of those lives that were lost impacts a family.”

COVID-19 – and the death and disease, school lockdowns, lost jobs, depression and anxiety that came with it – sparked an unprecedented mental health crisis across Long Island and the nation, public health experts said, as stressed and isolated people turned to alcohol and drugs to ease emotional and physical pain.

The COVID-19 crisis created “a perfect storm of two pandemics,” said Steve Chassman, executive director of the Long Island Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence.

“This is a great emotional upheaval,” Chassman told Newsday. “This is not just a medical pandemic, it is a mental health pandemic.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control reported a 28.5% increase in opioid deaths compared with the 78,057 during the same period the year before the pandemic.

“People could not cope,” said Suffolk County Health Commissioner Gregson Pigott. “You had so much grief and loss, and people were looking for a coping mechanism.”

Suffolk officials said there were 415 fatal overdoses in the county in 2021, including 134 suspected deaths not yet confirmed by the county medical examiner. In 2020, there were 411 deaths, including 62 not yet cleared by the medical examiner. In 2019, there were 345 fatal overdoses, including 61 suspected deaths; and 391 in 2018, including 57 not yet confirmed.

Authorities in Nassau say there were 356 overdose deaths in the county last year, including 200 suspected deaths not yet confirmed by the county medical examiner. Nassau officials reported 287 fatal overdoses in 2020, including dozens not formally cleared by the medical examiner.

“The pandemic has ratcheted up the ambient level of stress,” said Christian Racine, senior director of clinics for the Family Service League, a social services agency that provides substance abuse treatment in Nassau and Suffolk. “For people with substance abuse issues, it is making it that much worse.”

More than 40% of Americans – 42.6% –reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in November 2020, according to a U.S. Census Bureau Household Pulse Survey. And even though that number dropped to 31.8% in early 2022, it is still well above the 10.8% of Americans who reported such symptoms in a separate, pre-pandemic federal survey in 2019. Many of those struggling with anxiety and depression during the pandemic turned to drugs and alcohol to numb their pain, public health experts said.

“It is something we were gaining a lot of ground on, and now we have given those gains back,” said Jeffrey Reynolds, president and CEO of Family & Children’s Association, which provides treatment for substance abuse and support for Long Islanders in recovery. “The 100,000 number is likely to grow in the next year or so in a pretty significant way.”

Nearly two-thirds of those deaths nationally, according to the CDC, were caused by fentanyl, a cheap, synthetic opioid that is easy to manufacture and smuggle from Mexico or China. Drug dealers are lacing heroin and cocaine with fentanyl, Long Island law enforcement officials warn, and in counterfeit Oxycodone, Xanax, Adderall and other black market pills sold to unsuspecting buyers.

President Joe Biden declared the trafficking of synthetic opioids a national emergency in December. Before the pandemic, the Drug Enforcement Administration seized fentanyl one or two kilos at a time, according to Deputy Special Agent-in-Charge Keith Kruskall of the agency’s New York division. “A year later, we are seizing kilograms of fentanyl in batches of 10, 20, 30 kilos,” he told Newsday.

Fatal opioid overdoses cost the United States $1 trillion each year, according to the U.S. Commission on Combating Synthetic Opioid Trafficking, a panel created by Congress in 2020 to make recommendations to stop the flow of synthetic opioids into the nation. Most of those costs, according to a report issued Feb. 8, result from lost productivity caused by premature deaths, healthcare bills and criminal justice expenses.

“Since 1999, we’ve lost more than one million Americans to drug overdoses,” said Rep. David Trone (D-Md.), co-chair of the commission. “That’s one million moms, dads, sons and daughters lost because our country’s response to the opioid epidemic has failed.”

Experts point to a shutdown of the criminal justice system during the coronavirus as one of the factors because it prevented drug court judges from ordering defendants into treatment. Diversion programs stopped drug screening, removing the threat of jail or other consequences for positive tests.

Many treatment providers, 12-step programs and other support networks turned to Zoom and Skype during the early months of the pandemic to assist those struggling with drugs. Some substance abusers require a more personal approach.

“There is nothing like a hug and a handshake in the basement of a church,” Reynolds said.