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Opinion: 2020's Other Medical Crisis

Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, are displayed before a press conference regarding a major drug bust, at the office of the New York attorney general in New York City on Sept. 23, 2016.
Bags of heroin, some laced with fentanyl, are displayed before a press conference regarding a major drug bust, at the office of the New York attorney general in New York City on Sept. 23, 2016.

"I had no idea how many funerals I'd be going to," Dave Marlon of Las Vegas told us. "Including this weekend."

Marlon is a licensed alcohol and drug counselor and CEO of CrossRoads, an addiction treatment center in Nevada. We spoke just after U.S. government statistics released this week revealed that a record 93,000 people died of drug overdoses in 2020, what we might call the first year of the coronavirus pandemic.

That's an increase of nearly 30% from the previous year. It means that about 11 people died each hour, on average, more than 250 people a day, from drug overdoses.

"It's terrifying," Keith Humphreys, a professor of psychiatry at Stanford, told us, and did not want to moderate the message he believes is important to hear. "It is the worst overdose crisis in the history of the United States. And we're not making progress."

We called Marlon because he's an addiction counselor, and a recovering addict, sober 16 years. He agrees with academic observers that life during the COVID-19 pandemic has been hard for people who struggle with addiction, and has increased deaths from overdoses.

Health care has been stretched, and hospitals at times overwhelmed with critical COVID patients. Many in-person counseling programs had to be suspended, and not every person struggling with addiction was able to continue online. People lost jobs and income, and suffered more anxiety and stress. Lots of people have felt overwhelmed, and closed off.

Shannon Monnat, an associate professor of sociology at Syracuse, told the AP that cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroin are increasingly contaminated with fentanyl — which makes those drugs more dangerous.

Marlon believes there has been another crucial factor, too:

"Isolation," he told us. "It's one of the key symptoms of addiction. And suddenly, everyone is told, 'Isolate!' "

Marlon says he has found support in his twice-weekly Zoom sessions with other people in recovery.

"But opiate withdrawal is painful," he says. "People struggling to recover need real care, and human connection."

America's economy and simple human optimism may be on the rise this summer, even as COVID case numbers are growing again. Schools and businesses are making plans to reopen in-person.

But addiction doesn't just disappear in better times. As Marlon told us, "It's a lifelong struggle."

And if you struggle with addiction, there is help. The national help line is 1-800-662-4357, 1-800-662-HELP — or you can look online at FindTreatment.gov.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.