A key senator in the fight against opioids says the U.S. cannot afford to take its eye off the addiction crisis as it combats the coronavirus pandemic that is separating drug users from support groups and poses a deadly risk inside recovery houses.
Sen. Rob Portman, Ohio Republican, pointed to troubling reports of 13 fatal overdoses during a recent 48-hour period in Columbus and 37 such overdoses in the county surrounding Dayton in March — its highest monthly total in three years.
“We were finally making progress on this issue in Ohio,” Mr. Portman told The Washington Times. “Here we are back to unacceptably high numbers.”
Overdose deaths fell slightly in 2018, the last full year for which data is available, marking the first year-to-year drop in nearly three decades. No one wants to backslide on hard-won headway during the pandemic.
“We have to be careful not to take our eye off the ball and allow addiction to spread so that it results in the same kind of tragic overdose deaths and addiction and people not being able to function that we had only a couple of years ago,” said Mr. Portman, who cruised to reelection in 2016 after focusing his campaign on fixing the opioid problem in his hard-hit state.
As Congress mulls a “phase four” bill to provide coronavirus relief, Mr. Portman said he will push to make sure people in recovery houses get a fair share of personal protective equipment, or PPE, so they don’t become hot spots of COVID-19 transmission. He’s also eyeing additional funding to make sure states and localities stretched thin by the coronavirus fight can maintain the battle against addiction to opioids.
His push underscores the all-consuming nature of the virus and its potential impact on the drug epidemic, a long-running crisis fueled partly by the type of job losses, anxiety and despair that are slamming every corner of the country once again.
Also, “the fact that domestic violence has apparently increased is not a good sign. People deal with stressful conditions in various ways: some adopt pets, while others beat their spouses or turn to drugs,” said Richard Ausness, a law professor at the University of Kentucky who tracks the crisis.
While there is no evidence that overdoses are spiking nationwide, the Trump administration says it is not taking chances, ordering a maritime blitz on traffickers and expanding the range of treatment options for people with substance use disorders.
President Trump made the opioid fight a key part of his platform in his 2016 campaign. He declared it a public health emergency during the first year of his presidency and called on young people to avoid getting hooked on opioids. Congress has approved billions of dollars in grant funding to help states fight addiction while expanding treatment options and slashing the number of pain pills allowed to be filled at pharmacies.
The efforts appeared to be paying off. But then the coronavirus struck, upending everything.
There’s anecdotal evidence that patients are having a hard time keeping their treatment regimens in place, while social distancing means losing the intimacy of in-person recovery meetings that are a lifeline for some.
Jim Carroll, the White House’s drug “czar,” said some nonprofits were able to use emergency funding to buy computer tablets and other technology to take their support meetings online, although he has heard about some people relapsing because of the loss of in-person support.
“We are social creatures, to be able to reach across and put your arm around someone when you’re hurting and need it most is really meaningful,” Mr. Carroll said.
His office is also monitoring people who might be susceptible to addiction during the pandemic.
Drug users and those in recovery often have compromised immune systems, making them more vulnerable to COVID-19, and some states are releasing prisoners en masse. The reentry period is when former inmates are at high risk of relapse or a fatal overdose because of a loss of drug-tolerance.
Mr. Trump, meanwhile, deployed an anti-drug mission to the Caribbean to thwart maritime smugglers, and drug seizures continue along the southwest border.
“The drug cartels watch what we do as a country very closely, and they will respond accordingly,” said Mr. Carroll, the director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. “It’s critical that we stay one step ahead.”
“That’s my fear, that we are going to take a step backward with this,” he said. “That’s why we are ramping up our efforts.”
The administration said patients in methadone treatment can receive 28 days of take-home doses amid the pandemic, and it is allowing doctors with requisite waivers to prescribe buprenorphine — a key drug in medication-assisted treatment — to new and existing patients over the telephone.
The Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services made it easier for doctors to get paid under Medicaid and Medicare during the pandemic while using telemedicine, a process in which doctors see patients over the internet.
Doctors and the American public are getting plenty of telemedicine practice because of stay-at-home orders, so policymakers hope it opens new doors for people in recovery even after the virus is gone.
In another silver lining, the pandemic may have blunted some of the illicit fentanyl trade that feeds off the legitimate chemical industry in China.
The administration says it does “believe that precursor chemicals from China are harder to get, and that may be impacting the ability of drug trafficking organizations to produce synthetic opioids and methamphetamine.”
Mr. Portman is hopeful the U.S. and China can use this moment to reduce the flow of synthetic opioids, despite new frictions over Beijing’s handling of the outbreak after it was discovered in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in December.
It would make the U.S. safer, while China could shirk its reputation as a global distributor of deadly drugs as it beats back global complaints about its pandemic efforts.
“This is an opportunity to find an issue where we can agree,” Mr. Portman said. “We are going to have trouble on some other issues. This is an issue where we should see it as a win-win.”
• Tom Howell Jr. can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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