PHOTO CREDITS: SPENCER PLATT/GETTY IMAGES
The United States recorded over 81,000 drug overdose deaths in a 12-month stretch, the worst year-long total reported in American history.
The U.S. has long been struggling to combat the opioid epidemic, but experts say that the total between May 2019 and May 2020, published in a CDC report last week, can be at least partially attributed to the coronavirus pandemic. Specifically, experts attribute the total to the pandemic’s disruption of in-person treatment and recovery when it began to spread nationwide in March. Americans who suffered from drug use were also increasingly likely to use drugs alone once they entered quarantine and were kept away from others, upping the risk that an overdose would prove fatal since nobody was available to contact already-burdened emergency services, the CDC report outlines.
Experts also said that already-lethal drugs themselves have become even more dangerous; since the pandemic caused supply problems for cartels and dealers, they mixed extremely potent drugs like fentanyl into heroin, cocaine and methamphetamine. “I don’t think there are a bunch of new people who suddenly started using drugs because of COVID. If anything, I think the supply of people who are already using drugs is more contaminated,” Shannon Monnant, a researcher at Syracuse University who focuses on drug overdoses, told the Associated Press.
In addition to worsening the drug crisis in the U.S., the pandemic has already been the leading factor behind the dramatic spike in deaths this year. Over 3 million Americans are projected to have lost their lives before 2021, resulting in more than 400,000 Americans dying this year compared to last and making 2020 the deadliest year in American history (Newsla).
Teen and youth anxiety and depression have also gotten worse since COVID lockdowns began in March, early studies suggest, and many experts say they fear a corresponding increase in youth suicide. At the end of June, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention surveyed Americans on their mental health. They found symptoms of anxiety and depression were up sharply across the board between March and June, compared with the same time the previous year. And young people seemed to be the hardest-hit of any group.
Almost 11 percent of all respondents to that survey said they had “seriously considered” suicide in the past 30 days. For those ages 18 to 24, the number was 1 in 4 — more than twice as high. Data collection for several studies on teen mental health during the pandemic is currently underway. And experts worry those studies will show a spike in suicide, because young people are increasingly cut off from peers and caring adults.
“Teenagers are in a developmental space where it is critically important that they have regular contact with their peers and are able to develop close and ongoing relationships with adults outside the home, such as their teachers, their coaches, their advisers,” says Lisa Damour, an adolescent psychologist who is a columnist and host of the podcast Ask Lisa: The Psychology of Parenting. “And I worry very much about what it means for that to be disrupted by the pandemic.” The stressors of COVID come as youth suicide was already at a record high before the pandemic, with increases every year since 2007. Suicide is the second leading cause of death among people ages 10-24, after accidents, as it has been for many years, according to the most recent data available from the CDC (NPR)
From the start, researchers have warned that lockdowns could prove far deadlier than the virus. People who lose their jobs or businesses are more prone to fatal drug overdoses and suicide, and evidence already exists that many more will die from cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, tuberculosis and other diseases because the lockdown prevented their ailments from being diagnosed early and treated properly. While the economic and social harms have been enormous, it isn’t clear that the lockdowns have brought significant health benefits beyond what was achieved by people’s voluntary social distancing and other actions.
In a comparison of 50 countries, a team led by Rabail Chaudhry of the University of Toronto found that COVID-19 was deadlier in places with older populations and higher rates of obesity (like the United States), but the mortality rate was no lower in countries that closed their borders or enforced full lockdowns. After analyzing 23 countries and 25 US states with widely varying policies, Andrew Atkeson of UCLA and fellow economists found that the mortality trend was similar everywhere once the disease took hold: The number of daily deaths rose rapidly for 20 to 30 days, then fell rapidly.
Similar conclusions were reached in analyses of COVID-19 deaths in Europe. Simon Wood of the University of Edinburgh concluded that infections in Britain were already declining before the nation’s lockdown began in late March. In Germany, Thomas Wieland of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology found that infections were waning in most of the country before the national lockdown began and that the additional curfews imposed in Bavaria and other states had no effect. Wieland hasn’t published any work on New York City’s pandemic, but he says that the city’s trend looks similar to Germany’s. If, as some studies have shown, a COVID-19 death typically occurs between 21 days and 26 days after infection, the peak of infections would have occurred at least three weeks prior to the peak in deaths on April 7. That would mean that infections in the city had already begun to decline by March 17 — five days before the lockdown began.
In Britain, a study led by the Imperial College economist David Miles concluded that even if you gave the lockdown full credit for averting the most unrealistic worst-case scenario (500,000 British deaths, more than 10 times the current toll), it would still flunk even the most lenient cost-benefit test. Sweden was denounced early in the pandemic by lockdown proponents because of its relatively high death rate — and it did initially flounder in protecting nursing homes — but its overall mortality rate is now lower than that of the United States and some other European countries. The rate is higher than that of its Nordic neighbors, but mainly because of demographic differences and other factors not related to its failure to shut down.
Early in the pandemic, Scott Atlas at the Hoover Institution and researchers at Swansea University independently calculated that the lockdowns would ultimately cost more years of life than COVID-19 in the United States and Britain, and the toll seems certain to be worse in poor countries. The World Bank estimates that the coronavirus recession could push 60 million people into extreme poverty, which inevitably means more disease and death. Now that we know more, there’s no ethical justification for continuing this failed experiment (NY Post).
POLITICS EDITOR: CARSON CHOATE