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Drug Overdose Deaths Are Down. Will COVID-19 Trigger an Increase?

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Wednesday, May 27, 2020   

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. -- The coronavirus pandemic has pushed unemployment rates in many states to record highs, and health policy groups worry it could mean an increase in suicides, drug and alcohol abuse.

For the first time in two decades, said John Auerbach, president and chief executive of the nonprofit Trust for America's Health, U.S. deaths from drug overdoses, alcohol abuse and suicide leveled off in 2018. However, he warned that minority communities with lower wages typically report the highest numbers of preventable deaths, and that unemployment due to COVID-19 could reverse progress made in reducing drug abuse.

"The loss of a job, unstable housing, a relationship breakup," he said. "We know that the lower your income, the more likely that you're going to be experiencing those and at risk for these causes of death."

The United States' overall opioid death rate dropped by 2% from 2017 to 2018, but the death rate for synthetic opioids increased 10% nationwide. In New Mexico, 63% of drug-overdose deaths involved opioids in 2018, a total of 338, which is one of the highest state percentages in the nation.

The study also showed a 51% increase in preventable deaths from drugs and suicide over the past decade. Auerbach said the pandemic could affect mental and behavioral health trends, and believes the United States should be developing policies to prevent further deaths of despair.

"We need to make sure that people have easy access to high-quality health insurance," he said, "where behavioral health is linked in with the physical treatment that they're receiving."

Auerbach said American Indians, Asians, blacks, Latinos and older adults all experienced increases in drug-induced deaths between 2017 and 2018.


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