As COVID Recedes, Focus on the Other Epidemic

by James A. Bacon

From the Fauquier Times: According to Virginia Department of Health data, the number of Virginians who died from drug overdoses in 2020 increased 41% the previous to to 2,297. Local officials attributed the surge to the COVID-19 lockdown. “The pandemic has had a devastating impact,” said Jan Brown, executive director of SpiritWorks Foundation Center for the Soul, which operates a recovery center in Warrenton. “We’ve seen more people relapsing. We’ve seen more deaths because of the isolation. People are using alone. Help can’t get to them in time.”

Then there’s this factoid from Carol Bova’s series in Bacon’s Rebellion about the Ballad Health merger: 30% of Wise County babies are born addicted.

More than 11,000 Virginians have died with COVID. By any other yardstick of comparison, an increase in the number of opioid deaths last year, 670, would be considered a calamity. Overshadowed by COVID, the leap in opioid deaths attracted little notice. COVID is fast receding. Will opioid addiction retreat as well?

COVID and overdose deaths are driven by very different dynamics. There is no vaccine for alcohol or drug addiction. Recovery from addiction can take years, and is typically marred by multiple relapses and non-fatal overdoses. That doesn’t even include whatever horrors opioid addiction and withdrawal causes newborn infants.

Prosecutors can crack down on Purdue Pharmaceuticals, which got the opioid epidemic rolling with its aggressive marketing of pain killers, but the opioid trade has gone underground. Mexican cartels and other organized crime syndicates who peddle fentanyl and designer drugs are harder to suppress. With a thicket of restrictions governing prescriptions, at least Oxycontin took some initiative and determination to abuse. With drug dealers operating outside the law, fentanyl takes no effort to acquire.

So, here’s an idea for Virginia lawmakers as they ponder how to squander the billions of federal COVID-relief dollars descending upon the state. Set aside a chunk of that money to deal with the other epidemic — the addiction epidemic. Allocate funds for alcohol and drug addiction treatment, and allocate funds for law-enforcement interdiction of heroin, fentanyl and other highly addictive, highly destructive drugs.