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Sharp increase in drug overdose deaths: COVID isn’t the only thing killing us

(© Fabian –

Drug overdose deaths in Virginia were up 67 percent in the second quarter of 2020, fresh data that adds another layer to our understanding of the impact of COVID-19 on society, in this case in terms of the government response.

A report authored by Kathrin “Rosie” Hobron, the state forensic epidemiologist at the Virginia Department of Health, registered 634 drug overdose deaths in the second quarter, covering the time period April 1-June 30.

There were 380 drug overdose deaths in Virginia in the second quarter of 2019, and the average for the past three second quarters, 2017-2019, was 371.3, suggesting consistency in that data over the longer period of time, ahead of what we’re seeing in 2020.

Gov. Ralph Northam issued a statewide stay-at-home order to stem the spread of COVID-19 in mid-March, and only began lifting restrictions from that order in early May – and a number of restrictions remain in place to this day, more than eight months later.

The governor’s move precipitated a quick, dramatic increase in unemployment as businesses impacted by the stay-at-home order went on hiatus or outright closed up for good.

The unemployment rate surged from 3.3 percent in March to a record 10.6 percent in April, as the labor force contracted by 141,611 and the number of unemployed increased by 308,629.

Doing the math there, that’s 450,240 people who lost their jobs in the matter of a few weeks.

The most recent data from the Virginia Employment Commission tell us that 61.8 percent of those who lost jobs in the spring have been able to go back to work, but that still leaves more than 170,000 Virginians out in the cold, probably almost literally, as we approach the winter months.

And that’s what is maybe the scarier thing than even these numbers from this report leaves unsaid, for lack of more current data.

As the disruptions continue now into their ninth month, it’s not just those who lost their livelihoods who are being impacted.

A study released last week by the COVID-19 Consortium for Understanding the Public’s Policy Preferences Across States, a joint project involving researchers at Harvard, Northeastern, Northwestern and Rutgers, finds 47.3 percent of those ages 18-24 reporting at least moderate depression symptoms, and, alarmingly, 36.9 percent of those in that age group report having had suicidal thoughts – a tenfold increase from a study of suicide ideation conducted in 2013-2014.

Children are also being adversely impacted. A CDC study released last week reports that mental health-related emergency room visits for children were up 24 percent among 5- to 11-year-olds and 31 percent among 12- to 17-year-olds.

There are similar issues in the impacts on adolescents and young adults – from schools and colleges going to virtual learning, to disruptions in living situations, increased tensions leading to domestic situations.

Those disruptions were also precipitated by the stay-at-home orders done in the name of public health.

The data in terms of violence, mental health, suicide ideation, drug overdoses, has a long way to go to catch up to the daily case counts that get banner headlines from the news media.

Even the unclear picture that we have at this stage tells us that there’s more to public health in 2020 than COVID-19.

Story by Chris Graham