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Call it an epidemic within the pandemic.

Provisional data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates that the United States saw the highest number of drug overdose deaths ever recorded last year. More than 93,000 people died from overdoses in 2020, a 29% increase over the previous year.

CDC officials say overdose deaths were driven largely by the use of synthetic opioids like illicit fentanyl, as well as of cocaine, methamphetamine and fentanyl analogs, often in combination or in adulterated forms. Overdoses from prescription pain medication and heroin are still high, and increasingly linked to adulteration with illicit fentanyl.

Stressors like the coronavirus pandemic, along with efforts to combat disease spread like safer-at-home/stay-at-home orders, and the economic recession were contributing factors. In addition, treatment and support for drug addiction became more difficult to access for many.

“The number of deaths is heartbreaking and deeply concerning,” Jennifer Reynolds, MPH, CHES, section manager for Health Communication and Marketing at ORAU, said. “The pandemic negatively affected individuals with substance use disorders and now, illicit fentanyl has made the drug supply much more dangerous.”

Reynolds recently co-authored Health communication campaigns to drive demand for evidence-based practices and reduce stigma in the HEALing communities study and is leading the ORAU team that supports the study’s University grantees on communications work.Reynolds offers the following practical guidance for people with OUD and the people who support them, no matter the situation:

  • Get Naloxone (also known as NARCAN). “If you are at risk of overdosing or if you have a loved one with OUD, get Naloxone. Have it at home and carry it with you. Know how to use it. Tell your friends and loved ones where you keep it. That’s going to save a life,” she said. Naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose when used quickly. It’s available without a prescription at pharmacies in most states. The website is a great training resource for responding to an opioid overdose for both first responders and bystanders.
  • If you are not yet it treatment, seek it. If you are ready, ask a provider about medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD - also known as medically assisted treatment) like buprenorphine and methadone. MOUD are FDA-approved and the most-effective way to help someone enter long-term remission and recovery. If you are not ready to begin treatment, please seek out services (including naloxone, sterile syringes, and drug checking supplies) through a local syringe services or harm reduction program.
  • If you are in treatment, stay engaged in treatment. “If you’re taking MOUD, keep taking your medication and contact your provider about tele-health.” The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration in some states has allowed patients taking MOUD a 28-day supply of their medication. Talk to your doctor about getting the medication you need.
  • If you’re in recovery, stay in recovery as best you can. The group Shatterproof has great information about finding virtual recovery support. Now, there are many groups specifically for individuals taking medication including SMART Recovery and Medication-Assisted Recovery Anonymous (MARA). “Social distancing does not have to mean social isolation,” Reynolds said. “If you have experienced a slip, are struggling to stay in treatment, or need support, please reach out to loved ones and seek peer recovery support – either virtually or in-person. You are not alone.” 
  • Check in on your loved ones. “If you love or support someone with an opioid use disorder, check in on them and make sure they are okay. Stigma related to opioid use disorder is high on any given day. With something like this they are perhaps even more vulnerable,” Reynolds said.
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Opioid abuse crisis in Appalachia

Since 2016, ORAU has traveled to six Appalachian states training more than 30 anti-drug coalitions, not-for-profit organizations, local health departments, emergency responders and law enforcement agencies through an Opioid Prevention Social Media Training and Technical Assistance Program. The program trains local organizations to more effectively use social media to communicate with the public about opioid misuse and abuse.

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