It wasn’t so long ago that the big public health crisis facing the nation was opioid abuse and the overdose deaths that were so frequently its result.
That was before the coronavirus pandemic, of course, the all-consuming emergency that has killed more than 400,000 Americans and 2.4 million people worldwide. But though COVID-19 pushed opioid addiction off the national radar, the problem has hardly gone away.
In fact, it is worse than ever.
Opioid-related deaths killed a record number of people last year in Albany County, for example. National trend lines are the same, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other authorities.
What’s particularly disheartening is that we had seemed to be making headway against opioid addiction. We were treating it as a public health crisis, targeting both the disease and drug makers that flooded the market with their potentially dangerous products.
But the scourge of drugs laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, has worked in tandem with the coronavirus pandemic to wipe away the progress. The pandemic, in particular, taxed the health care system and made addiction services more difficult to access. Some residential treatment programs closed, and outpatient programs were greatly curtailed.
Drug addiction is also considered a symptom of despair, and there were reasons to be despairing as COVID-19 upended so much of our lives and the things we treasured.
Families have been shattered and scarred and careers and businesses lost. Social distancing has become a requirement. The consequences for mental health have been widespread, and are likely to be long-lasting.
That suggests this new tide of opioid deaths could continue long after COVID-19 subsides, so we must remember the importance of emotional recovery.
We’ll need to restore community and familial bonds that may have been weakened by the pandemic. We’ll need to combat the pandemic’s isolation and alienation with new commitments to kindness and neighborliness.
But there must also be a public health component to the fight. As lawmakers in Albany and Washington devise plans to combat the economic consequences of COVID-19, they must remember that addiction and mental health programs also need attention. They must remember that many Americans are hurting in ways that can’t be measured by the GDP or stock indexes.
Defeating COVID-19 and recovering from this devastating worldwide pandemic will remain the top public health priority for months to come. But lawmakers must not ignore the crisis that was with us before the coronavirus, and that never went away.
— Times Union, Albany/TNS