As COVID-19 surges, AMA sounds alarm on nation’s overdose epidemic

The U.S. is seeing its worst COVID-19 surge of the year. Yet as the number of new cases, hospitalizations and deaths all rise, the country continues to deal with a concurrent epidemic affecting Americans: A drug overdose epidemic driven by illicit fentanyl, methamphetamine and cocaine.

AMA Immediate Past President Patrice A. Harris, MD, MA, recently joined the National Association of Attorneys General to discuss the overdose epidemic as part of the National Attorneys General Training & Research Institute webinar, “COVID-19 and Its Impacts on Substance Abuse.”

“It is imperative that we continue to talk about other health issues that are impacting our nation,” Dr. Harris said. “We are appropriately focused on COVID, it is still top of mind for most people, and it’s understandable that we can lose focus on other issues … but we still have to make sure we are focused on the overdose epidemic that we continue to experience in this country.”

The AMA believes that science, evidence, and compassion must continue to guide patient care and policy change as the nation’s opioid epidemic evolves into a more dangerous and complicated illicit drug overdose epidemic. Learn more at the AMA’s End the Epidemic website.

There has been a 37% decrease in opioid prescriptions since 2014, and yet the number of drug-related overdose deaths has continued to spike, fueled by a dramatic increase in fatalities involving illicit opioids, such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl and heroin, as well as illicit stimulants like methamphetamine and cocaine.

This differentiation is essential to understand, because the policy interventions that attempt to reduce prescription opioid-related overdose and death are different in many ways from policy interventions necessary to reduce illicit drug-related overdose and death.

Dr. Harris said that she welcomed the partnership of state attorneys general and said they can play a key role in working alongside physicians, governors and state legislatures to help remove barriers to evidence-based care.

This action is more important than ever as the nation continues to deal with the impact of COVID-19. As the pandemic wears on, more Americans are anxious, overstressed, isolated, concerned about their financial situation and potentially losing their job. Each of those are risk factors for people who already have a substance-use disorder.

More than 19,000 people died of a drug overdose in the first three months of 2020, nearly 3,000 more than the same time period in 2019, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. If that rate stays constant or worsens, the U.S. will be on track for an all-time high number of overdose-related deaths in a calendar year.

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