Pandemic policies linked to overdose spike – Syracuse University News

Drug overdoses skyrocketed in the United States during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than 92,000 people died from overdoses in 2020. Public health experts worried early in the pandemic that lockdowns and other measures to control the spread of the virus could lead to more overdoses.

In work recently published in the “American Journal of Public Health”Researchers at Syracuse University are quantifying how much the pandemic measures and economic policies have affected these numbers. The findings provide lawmakers and health leaders with answers about future health policies and the unintended consequences of certain health measures, even if those measures were intended to save lives.

Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs faculty members and Lerner Center for Public Health Promotion and Population Health researchers Douglas Wolf, Shannon Monnat, Emily Wiemers, Jennifer Karas Montez and Yue Sun led the study, while former Syracuse graduate student Xue Zhang and the National Institute on Drug Abuse Program scientist Elyse Grossman also contributed.

Professors Wolf and Monnat sat down to discuss the key findings of the work.

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Douglas Wolf

Q: What were the key findings you discovered in this study?

Douglas Wolf: There are three main conclusions supported by this research:

1. The increase in drug overdose deaths seen in many states during the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic appears to have been exacerbated by state policies intended to control the spread of the virus – policies that restricts personal activities, travel and business;

2. Government policies intended to alleviate the economic impact of the pandemic – for example, expanded unemployment benefits – also appear to have reduced deaths from drug overdoses; And

(3) Although the two policies had opposite effects, no states imposed economic support policies sufficient to fully offset the harmful effects of the restrictions on individual and business activity.

Q: Did lockdowns have an unintended consequence of rising drug overdose deaths?

Wolf: Yes, lockdown policies appear to have contributed to an increase in drug overdose deaths. This could have occurred due to loss of employment and income, adverse mental health outcomes, reduced access to treatment and harm reduction services, an inadequate supply of ambulance responders, reduction in the prohibition of illicit drugs or an increase in use of solitary drugs.

Q: Can you find examples of economic relief policies that have worked better than others in reducing overdoses?

WolfNo, we are unable to separate the effects of expanded unemployment benefits and moratoriums on foreclosures and evictions, the two main forms of economic support policies.

Q: How can public health officials best meet the needs of people struggling with addiction during public health emergencies like the pandemic?

Shannon Monnat

Shannon Monnat

Shannon Monnat: Crises in general, and not just the COVID-19 pandemic, tend to amplify the risk factors for overdose. In the short term, reducing overdose risk among people already struggling with substance use disorders requires ensuring widespread and easy access to Narcan, the overdose-reversing drug. However, we cannot save our way out of the overdose crisis. The most progressive and effective strategy for reducing overdoses in the long term is to reduce the social and economic factors that lead people to use drugs and become addicted. At its core, this means that we must ensure that our society is organized in such a way that people have opportunities to participate in activities – work, family and community – that give purpose and meaning to their lives.

Q: Four years later, what are the biggest insights from your work that can be applied to the next pandemic response?

Monnat: As with any policy, there are tradeoffs. Our finding that restrictive policies were associated with greater increases in drug overdoses should be seen in the broader context of the decline in COVID-19 mortality. This policy has certainly saved lives. People who would otherwise have contracted the disease and died from it lived because these policies reduced the spread of disease. We should all be grateful for that. But we must also recognize that some of these policies had the unintended consequence of shortening other lives. The challenge for policymakers is to find the ideal balance that will save as many lives as possible.

You can view the team’s full research paper and research briefing.

If you would like to get in touch with researchers or receive more information, please contact:

Daryl Lovell
Deputy Director of Media Relations
University communications
[email protected] | @DarylLovell

Chris Munoz
Media relations specialist
University communications
[email protected]