In the shadow of Washington’s government office buildings, Gary Hayes discovers another dose of heroin, chasing a high that just hours before makes him want more.
“It’s hard to stop using it when you’re living on the streets and there’s no help for treatment,” Hayes told the VOA. The 28-year-old black man, who lives in a homeless tent in the nation’s capital, has been battling a substance abuse disorder for a decade.
“I overdoseed twice in the past year, but I know several people who died,” Hayes said, reflecting on the deadly opioid epidemic during another health tragedy, the coronavirus pandemic.
More than 93,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2020, the highest number on record, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released in July. US health officials attribute the increase in deaths to powerful synthetic opioids such as fentanyl, which can be up to 100 times more potent than morphine.
Overdose Deaths: Black vs. White
In the District of Columbia, more than 400 people died of opioid overdoses last year, and most were African American. The medical examiner’s office reported that fentanyl or fentanyl analogs were present in several cases.
“In some communities, we have seen mortality rates eclipse that of whites among African Americans over the past several years,” said Dr. Caleb Alexander, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore. Maryland. “Many people who have died from the opioid epidemic or otherwise developed addiction are African American or people of other color living in urban areas.”
Opioid overdose deaths among African Americans have increased since 2013, according to a study published in the journal Addiction. Simultaneously, opioid use among white Americans took off for the first time since the 1990s, when doctors began overdoing the opioid painkiller, triggering a health crisis.
“Historically, the opioid epidemic has at times been portrayed as an epidemic of rural white working-class families, but opioids do not discriminate,” Alexander told VOA. “Regardless of the color of your skin, the addiction that develops looks exactly the same.”
impact of pandemic
According to the CDC, between 1999 and 2019, nearly 500,000 people in the US died of opioid overdoses, both the prescription and illegal types. The pandemic has affected many communities, and US health officials believe the crisis has worsened since the pandemic began.
While overdose deaths were already on the rise in the months before the COVID-19 outbreak, the latest data shows a sharp increase in overdoses during the pandemic.
“It’s gone from the opioid crisis to what’s called the overdose crisis,” said harm reduction activist Britt Carpenter, director of the Philly Unknown Project, a group advocating for homelessness. He says the pandemic has reversed the progress made in reducing opioid addiction in recent years.
Carpenter walks the streets of the Kensington neighborhood in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, trying to help the homeless people he sees using opioids. “It’s been a small demographic of suburban users in their 20s who come to the city to live on the streets and use drugs,” Carpenter told VOA. “Over the past 18 months, some neighborhood streets have been filled with people again.”
In August, activists and police in the city of Philadelphia evacuated two large homeless camps in Kensington where, according to officials, hundreds of people were living and several drug overdoses were reported. “The world of outreach and recovery now has its hands full,” Carpenter said.
In Philadelphia County, illegal fentanyl was present in more than 80% of drug overdose deaths in 2020, according to the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA). In September, the DEA issued a public safety alert warning Americans of an alarming increase in the availability of lethal and counterfeit drugs that contain fentanyl and methamphetamine.
“Drug traffickers here and abroad are increasingly using counterfeit pills and counterfeit fentanyl to distribute venom,” said special agent Thomas Hodnett, in charge of the DEA’s Philadelphia division. Law enforcement officials say most counterfeit pills that arrive in the United States are produced in Mexico and China.
US health officials believe last year’s pandemic lockdowns and the availability of potent drugs dramatically increased rates of overdose and addiction.
“I know a lot of people who made progress in their recovery, then came back,” Armaan Madela, a recovering addict, told Reuters. Madala, who lives in San Diego, California, lost his sobriety and began using heroin and fentanyl last year. “Being alone and isolated in your living space for no reason to leave the house is enough for someone struggling with addiction to try and dig themselves into a hole,” he said.
Loss-reduction attorney Carpenter agrees. “One symptom of addiction is isolation. The pandemic lockdown made it difficult for people to attend support group meetings or visit their doctor in person.”
With many pandemic restrictions easing this year, more drug counseling programs reopened in-person services. At the same time, US medical researchers are working to develop new treatments for opioid addiction, with the hope of reducing fatal drug overdoses.
Clinical trials are underway for the first vaccine to be tested in the US for opioid abuse disorder. The vaccine will create antibodies that block opioids such as oxycodone from reaching the brain and subsequently obstruct a person’s breathing. Serum may be given in combination with other opioid-based drugs used to treat addiction.
Sandra Comer, professor of neurobiology at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, said, “A vaccine that lasts several months could help many more people beat their addiction and potentially reduce the risk of overdose.” can save from death.” Research is being done.
With billions of dollars being spent on the coronavirus pandemic, some health care experts are calling on the government to allocate more money for comprehensive addiction prevention and treatment programs.
“We need to make sure these treatments are available and that individuals with addiction have unfettered access because it can reduce the risk of dying by 50%,” Alexander said. “We know it can be done because millions of Americans today are living and living healthy, healthy lives.”