A Crisis With No End in Sight
Bloomberg Businessweek|March 01, 2021
The opioid epidemic has worsened with Covid as overdoses reach new highs
By Valerie Bauman and Ian Lopez

The last thing Dave Mullen remembers is the sound of his speech slurring. Then he collapsed.

The 57-year-old Navy veteran in Cocoa, Fla., lost his kitchen job at Hooters last March because of the pandemic. Short of money for food, there were days when he was lightheaded from hunger.

In what he calls a “small moment of weakness,” in late July he accepted an offer of what he now believes was heroin mixed with fentanyl. The slip put an end to more than three years of sobriety and led to a near-fatal overdose.

“Next thing I knew, the paramedics said that I was extremely purple, wasn’t breathing, and … I would have been dead very quickly if they didn’t come,” Mullen says.

The opioid epidemic has been eclipsed in the public consciousness by Covid-19, but it hasn’t abated. The pandemic has only exacerbated the crisis, piling stress and grief on top of substance abuse problems and jeopardizing efforts at recovery.

People are “living in tents because they lost their spot in sober homes because they lost their job,” says Charlotte Bismuth, a former assistant district attorney in Manhattan who prosecuted a notorious pill-mill doctor. “It’s so much worse than it was when Covid began.”

Drug overdoses of all kinds killed almost 84,000 people in the U.S. from August 2019 to July 2020. That’s 23% more than in the previous 12-month period, and the highest number of overdose deaths recorded in a single year. Opioids accounted for more than 61,000, or 73%, of those deaths.

Chelsi Cheatom, program manager at Trac-B Exchange, a Las Vegas-based safe needle program, says she expected to see demand drop during the pandemic because of public transportation cuts and calls for people to shelter in place. The reality was the opposite: “We have a line outside of our door,” she says.

On the campaign trail, Joe Biden proposed a $125 billion investment in prevention of substance abuse, treatment, and recovery, to be paid over 10 years with taxes on the pharmaceutical industry.

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