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Addiction Epidemic: What You Need to Know

Health Hub
Author name: Lee Health

Overdose Epidemic Graphic

In the midst of the pandemic last year, overdose deaths in the United States soared nearly 30 percent to a record 93,331.

In Florida, the percentage of overdose deaths were even higher, at 37 percent. The state ranks second in the nation for overdose deaths, behind only California. Last year, 7,579 people died from a drug overdose, an increase of 37 percent from 2019, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

“The increases in drug overdose deaths accelerated during the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Catherine Murtagh-Schaffer, PA, a physician assistant in cardiothoracic surgery. She serves as the program coordinator for the opioid disorder treatment and substance abuse response team.

“The coronavirus pandemic worsened the opioid crisis, which was already ravaging the country,” Murtagh-Schaffer says. “The coronavirus lockdowns and other restrictions forced many people with addiction into isolation from family and friends.

“In addition, many were no longer able to access in-person 12-step meetings and rehab programs, which closed before shifting into telehealth models. Treatment became harder to get.”

 It’s not surprising that substance use has increased during the COVID-19 epidemic. Data on alcohol use shows a significant increase in consumption. A study published in JAMA Network Open examining alcohol use during COVID-19 last year found that overall alcohol consumption increased 14 percent with a 17 percent increase among women

Heavy drinking—which was defined as five or more drinks for men and four or more drinks for women within a couple of hours—increased by 18.8 percent. Women saw a significant increase (41 percent) in heavy drinking.

“The pandemic stressors of job loss and eviction can be triggers for anyone to increase their use of alcohol and drugs, but especially for people who have substance use disorder.”

The dangers of fentanyl

According to Murtagh-Schaffer, street fentanyl is driving the vast majority of drug overdose deaths. Almost 73 percent of opioid-involved overdose deaths involved fentanyl. 

“Fentanyl is everywhere and its laced into all the street drugs,” she says. “People using these substances have no idea what they are getting when they make a buy. A recent overdose was due to cocaine laced with fentanyl.

“In Fort Myers and our surrounding counties, fentanyl is killing people.”

The estimate of over 93,000 overdose deaths translates to an average of more than 250 deaths each day, or about 11 deaths every hour.

Murtagh-Schaffer says research indicates people who use substances face many barriers to seeking treatment: stigma, guilt, shame and isolation and the constant fear of often painful and sometimes life-threatening withdrawal symptoms.

To address those challenges, she lauds the recent efforts of Rhode Island legislators to make that state the first state to authorize harm reduction centers.

What is harm reduction in addiction recovery?

Rhode Island’s two-year pilot program aims to prevent drug overdoses by establishing harm reduction centers, or safe zones, where persons may safely consume pre-obtained substances under the supervision of healthcare professionals.

Murtagh-Schaffer defines harm reduction treatment as an approach to keep people battling substance abuse alive long enough to help them get treatment and rehabilitation.

“There’s an abundance of evidence that harm reduction centers significantly reduce the chance of overdose,” Murtagh-Schaffer says. “And in doing so, they offer a gateway to treatment and rehabilitation for people with substance abuse disorder.”

The American Medical Association (AMA) announced its support for Rhode Island’s legislation for harm reduction centers, which takes effect March 1, 2022. The law stipulates that a city or town council where any facility intends to operate must first approve the application. Additionally, funding for the programs reportedly will come from non-governmental sources.

Increasing access to services

Initiatives like harm reduction centers have been proved to lower overdose rates, reduce infectious disease cases, and increase access to rehabilitative services and treatment, Murtagh-Schaffer notes.

“Harm reduction approaches can take different forms,” Murtagh-Schaffer explains. “But they all share the same goal: to connect people struggling with drug use to services. These are people who would otherwise likely remain marginalized due to the stigma of drug dependence.”

For example, the overdose antidote Narcan is available in pharmacies without a prescription. A form of naloxone, the FDA-approved nasal spray or injectable can revive someone who has stopped breathing after overdosing on opioids. Designed for use in the community, Narcan Nasal Spray is needle-free and ready to use.

(Programs such as Kimmie’s Recovery Zone provides Narcan nasal spray at no cost. To learn more, visit here.)

County syringe exchange programs are another form of harm reduction. In June 2018, Gov. Ron DeSantis signed a bill allowing county commissions to approve needle-exchange programs.

The legislation partly aims to battle the state’s growing opioid crisis. These social service programs collect used needles and dispense sterile ones for IV drug users for free or at a low cost. Programs may also offer HIV testing, drug abuse education, referral to treatment services, and other services.

“In our Lee Health Addiction Medicine Clinic we use medication-assisted treatment (MAT), in combination with counseling and behavioral therapies to treat a patient with substance use disorder(s),” Murtagh-Schaffer explains. “This ‘whole patient’ approach is standard of care for treatment of substance use disorders. It’s a program where empathy and therapies are fit within the context of a person’s circumstances and preferences.”

Lee Health Addiction Medicine—learn more

Lee Health Addiction Medicine offers treatment, including MAT, counseling and Narcotics Anonymous, which offers 12-step support for men and women seeking recovery. For an appointment or consultation, call 239-343-9190.

Resources to help you

  • For friends and family members affected by someone else’s addiction, Nar-Anon is a 12-step program where you will find support, encouragement, and ideas on how to cope.
  • Kimmie’s Recovery Zone (KRZ) is a Recovery Community Organization (RCO). Established by Al Kinkle after he lost his daughter to an overdose, KRZ offers virtual as well as some in-person recovery meetings. The organization also offers online resource recommendations.
  • If you or someone you know is battling addiction or a substance abuse disorder, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's (SAMHSA) national helpline is a free and confidential resource for treatment referrals and other information. The number is 800-662-HELP.