Two years ago, before anyone had heard of COVID-19, officials in many states across the country were beginning to breathe a sigh of relief that the tide finally seemed to be turning in the epidemic they’d been battling for most of the 21st century.
Here, and elsewhere, the number of deaths attributed to opioids appeared to have peaked and begun to fall. The Granite State saw 471 drug deaths in 2018, and the numbers for 2019, though not yet complete, were looking good. The numbers had been rising annually since 2012, hitting a high of 490 in 2017.
Truly, they’d been climbing, though not steadily, since the early 2000s, sparked by the overprescribing of dangerously addictive painkillers. By 2015 or so, states and Congress began clamping down on those prescriptions, and putting resources into treatment for those addicted, including life-saving naloxone and rehabilitation services. And while the battle was hardly won, there was certainly reason for optimism that the varied approaches were achieving some degree of success.
At the end of 2020, those 2019 numbers were complete, and as expected, the number of drug deaths had again dropped, to 415. Of course, overdose deaths don’t tell the complete story of the opioid epidemic’s toll on our state and nation — not by a long shot. But hope sprung.
The story, at least on a national level, goes downhill from there. The abrupt and deadly coronavirus pandemic has not only cost more than 4 million lives worldwide over the past 18 months — including more than 625,000 in the U.S. and nearly 1,400 in New Hampshire — it has caused disruptions in almost everything we do, from work to socializing to hygiene to prioritizing.
In doing so, it’s also diverted some of the resources being put toward the opioid epidemic. It’s isolated addicts from needed supports. And it’s likely driven more Americans into the sort of depression that makes them vulnerable to drug misuse.
So while the attention of pretty much everyone has been on COVID — rightfully, given its ongoing lethal potential — opioids have made a comeback.
Early in the pandemic, overdoses seemed to be on the wane, perhaps because so many people were stuck at home and drug supply chains dried up. But eventually, the malaise of home confinement and loss of interaction swung things the other way. Last week, the CDC announced a record 93,000 overdose deaths for 2020, a 30 percent jump from 2019.
Deaths from drug overdoses climbed in 48 of the 50 states for the year. Close to home, Vermont had the worst of it on a percentage basis, with a 57.6 percent increase. The Granite State, however, saw a drop, albeit a marginal one. The CDC reported two fewer overdose deaths in 2020 than 2019. The state’s numbers, slightly higher, show one additional death in 2020, with two cases still pending, but likely.
Further, the Granite State’s numbers so far for 2021 indicate the rate of overdose deaths will again remain pretty flat. So far this year, the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner has tallied 118 drug deaths, with another 86 pending. If all the pending cases are eventually designated drug deaths, that would be 204 through July 14, putting the state on a pace for about 400 deaths.
Why the Granite State is faring better than other states, including our close neighbor Vermont, is unknown. The state’s hub-and-spoke Doorway mental health program, which debuted a few years ago, has continued throughout the pandemic, helping treat those with substance-use disorder. Naloxone has, in the past couple of years, become somewhat ubiquitous not only among emergency-response units, but also at many employers and public gathering spots. It’s also become easier to get preemptively for those who know someone who’s addicted to opioids.
With virus cases again rising, spurred by variants and the easing of social-distancing restrictions, it’s possible the opioid crisis could once more be pushed to the back of many minds. But even if our state appears to be holding its own against two generational health crises, we shouldn’t lose focus on both.