The opioid epidemic was already a national crisis. Covid-19 could be making things worse

(CNN)Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the nation was in the throes of another public health crisis: the opioid epidemic.

More than 2 million Americans struggle with opioid use disorder, and about 130 Americans on average die every day from an opioid overdose. Opioids account for a majority of drug overdose deaths, the leading cause of accidental death in the US. It's a crisis that's been a priority for officials at the federal, state and local levels for years.
Now, the coronavirus has disrupted all matters of life across the country -- including efforts to combat the nation's opioid problem.
Walk-in clinics and syringe exchange programs have been closed. Community support groups are meeting virtually.
    Some who struggle with substance abuse are homeless or incarcerated and can't comply with social distancing guidelines, while those who can are left isolated and at risk. On top of all that, the pandemic is causing massive stress -- a primary driver of relapse.
    "This changing, very strange world that we're living through could serve as a trigger for people to return to drug use," said Daliah Heller, director of drug use initiatives at the public health organization Vital Strategies. "And that brings a great potential for overdose with it."
    As local officials report spikes in overdose calls and deaths, experts and advocates say they're concerned the coronavirus pandemic is making an already serious problem worse.

    Local officials are reporting overdose spikes

    County coroners, law enforcement and emergency responders around the country are reporting spikes in overdose calls and deaths -- and they're concerned that's connected to Covid-19.
    Franklin County, Ohio, reported 28 non-fatal overdoses from last Friday night to Saturday night. The previous Friday, the county had six overdose deaths, which coroner Anahi Ortiz had described as a "surge" in a Facebook post.
    Ortiz wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday that Franklin County had seen a 50% increase in fatal overdoses from January to April 15. Sixty-two people died of overdoses in the month of April alone, she wrote.
    Niagara County in New York reported last month that drug overdoses spiked 35% from January 1 to April 6, compared to the same time last year.
    And in Jacksonville, Florida, the fire and rescue chief said the city saw a 20% increase in overdose calls from February to March.
    It's too soon to determine whether such reports are evidence of a larger trend, said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
    Federal and state data on fatal and non-fatal overdoses for the past few months are not yet available, while coroners and medical examiners are overwhelmed with cases of Covid-19 and may not have the resources to follow up on overdose deaths, she said.
    "We do not know," Volkow said, of whether more people are overdosing in connection with Covid-19. "In many cases, we will likely never know."
    But she predicts that some communities will "absolutely" see an uptick in overdoses.

    Public health services are disrupted

    There are a few reasons that experts are concerned about a potential coronavirus-related increase in opioid overdoses.
    For one, harm reduction programs across the country have been experiencing reduced capacity given the pandemic, Heller said.
    An addiction treatment clinic in Olympia, Washington, operates outside to reduce the risk of Covid-19 infection.
    Though many states have defined such services as essential in their stay-at-home orders, some programs have had to restrict access or reduce staffing because of a lack of funding or personal protective equipment for their workers.
    Federal agencies have eased some regulations that have mitigated the risks of overdoses and Covid-19 infection, Heller said.
    For example, patients receiving medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder often have to visit a provider daily for a dose of methadone. But because such visits could expose both patients and health care workers to Covid-19, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) is temporarily allowing treatment programs to provide patients with two to four weeks' worth of methadone doses to take home.
    Meanwhile, the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has also relaxed telehealth restrictions around prescriptions for buprenorphine, another medication-assisted treatment.
    Still, for people who lack health insurance or high-speed internet access, there are barriers.

    People are engaging risky behaviors

    In some communities, services that treat addiction or prevent overdoses, such as needle exchange programs, are on hold -- leading people to engage in risky behaviors.
    Jamie Favaro is the founder of Next Distro, a harm reduction organization that provides syringes and the overdose-reversing naloxone online and through the mail. She said her organization is receiving about five times as many requests as usual because people haven't had access to sterile syringes. A significant volume of requests is coming from people in Ohio, Kentucky and West Virginia, she said.
    Outreach workers deliver a bag of fresh food and package of Narcan, the opioid reversing medication, to a person staying in a Delaware motel.
    Recently, she said, a client in West Virginia requested syringes after sharing a single needle with three other people for a week. The exchange programs in their area were shut down, the client said, and there was nowhere else