Amid Pandemic, Virginia Hospital's Opioid Overdoses Up Nearly 10-Fold

Randy Dotinga

July 07, 2020

Opioid overdoses have shot up by almost 10-fold at a Virginia ED since March, a new report finds. The report provides more evidence that the coronavirus pandemic is sparking a severe medical crisis among illicit drug users.

"Health care providers should closely monitor the number of overdoses coming into their hospitals and in the surrounding community during this time," study lead author and postdoctoral research fellow Taylor Ochalek, PhD, said in an interview. "If they do notice an increasing trend of overdoses, they should spread awareness in the community to the general public, and offer resources and information for those that may be seeking help and/or may be at a high risk of overdosing."

Dr. Ochalek presented the study findings at the virtual annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence.

According to the report, opioid overdoses at the VCU Medical Center in Richmond, Va., grew from an average of six a month from February to December 2019 to 50, 57, and 63 in March, April, and May 2020. Of the 171 cases in the later time frame, the average age was 44 years, 72% were male, and 82% were African American.

"The steep increase in overdoses began primarily in March," said Dr. Ochalek, of Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond. "This timing coincides with the Virginia governor's state of emergency declaration, stay-at-home order, and closure of nonessential businesses order."

The researchers did not provide details about the types of opioids used, the patient outcomes, or whether the patients tested positive for COVID-19. It's unclear whether the pandemic directly spawned a higher number of overdoses, but there are growing signs of a stark nationwide trend.

"Nationwide, federal and local officials are reporting alarming spikes in drug overdoses — a hidden epidemic within the coronavirus pandemic," the Washington Post reported on July 1, pointing to increases in Kentucky, Virginia, and the Chicago area.

Meanwhile, the federal Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, which tracks overdoses nationwide, issued 191% more "spike alerts" in January to April 2020 than in the same time period in 2019. However, the spike alerts began to increase in January, weeks before the pandemic began to take hold.

The findings are consistent with trends in Houston, where overdose calls were up 31% in the first 3 months of 2020, compared with 2019, said psychologist James Bray, PhD, of the University of Texas, San Antonio, in an interview. More recent data suggest that the numbers are rising even higher, said Dr. Bray, who works with Houston first responders and has analyzed data.

Possible causes include "stress due to economic problems, increased anxiety over COVID infection, and more relational stress due to social distancing and quarantining," Dr. Bray said.

Another potential factor is the disruption in the illicit drug supply chain because of limits on crossings at the southern border, said ED physician Scott Weiner, MD, MPH, of Brigham and Women's Hospital and Harvard Medical School, both in Boston. "As a result, opioids of extremely variable potency have infiltrated markets, and people using drugs may not be used to the new doses, especially if they are high-potency fentanyl analogues."

Moving forward, Dr. Bray said, "people need continued access to treatment. Telehealth and other virtual services need to be provided so that people can continue to have access to treatment even during the pandemic."

Dr. Weiner also emphasized the importance of treatment for patients who overdose on opioids. "In my previous work, we discovered that about 1 in 20 patients who are treated in an emergency department and survive would die within 1 year. That number will likely increase drastically during COVID," he said. "When a patient presents after overdose, we must intervene aggressively with buprenorphine and other harm-reduction techniques to save these lives."

The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health. Dr. Ochalek, Dr. Weiner, and Dr. Bray reported no relevant disclosures.

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