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'Very distressing' increase in drug overdoses during pandemic

One hospital reports a 23 percent increase in treatment of overdose patients this year.

INDIANAPOLIS — As hospitals struggle to fight the coronavirus pandemic, another crisis has emerged in local emergency rooms and it's proving to be just as deadly.

IU Health, Indiana's largest hospital system, says it saw it saw a nearly 23-percent increase in the number of people treated for a drug overdose in 2020 compared to 2019.

Doctors also say the use of naloxone spiked almost 25 percent over the same time period. That's the life-saving drug used to reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. 

"It's huge. It's very distressing," said Dr. Jessica Knopp, an emergency room physician at IU Health West in Hendricks County. "The people we see in the ER for overdose are from all walks of life and all ages. There isn’t a demographic that is not affected." 

Knopp said the majority of overdose deaths are opioid-related, but deaths involving methamphetamine are on the rise as well. 

It's not just a problem in Indiana. The CDC issued a nationwide advisory to medical professionals in December about an increase in overdose deaths. 

According to the CDC, more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States between May 2019 and May 2020, marking the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

"While overdose deaths were already increasing in the months preceding the 2019 novel coronavirus disease pandemic, the latest numbers suggest an acceleration of overdose deaths during the pandemic," the CDC advisory said. 

“The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard,” said CDC Director Robert Redfield, M.D. “As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.” 

The CDC says synthetic opioids including fentanyl "appear to be the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths." 

Other drugs cited were cocaine and heroin. 

"With the events of 2020, with coronavirus and social unrest and things like that, (it) really kind of exposed an underbelly of substance abuse disorder throughout Indiana and the country," said Spencer Medcalf, Lead Peer Recovery Coach for IU Health.

Medcalf is among a number of recovery coaches who help overdose patients get into treatment or counseling. He is uniquely equipped to talk with them. A recovering addict himself, he's been clean for four years.

"The biggest thing is providing hope," he said. "I felt pretty hopeless and down in the dumps in those situations, and so just providing some of that hope that things do get better. It's not always easy but it’s totally worth it."

The CDC is recommending more of that kind of support. In its advisory, the agency recommends expanded awareness about and access to treatment along with more availability of naloxone and overdose prevention education.


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