Overdoses in overdrive during pandemic

January 08, 2021
Fentanyl crystals and pills
Synthetic opioids, including fentanyl, pictured here, are the most common drugs involved in overdose deaths in the United States. Image courtesy of the Drug Enforcement Administration.

When Laura B. describes being revived after one of the two heroin overdoses that landed her in the hospital, it sounds like the scene from the movie “Pulp Fiction” in which Uma Thurman’s character is saved with a shot of adrenaline.

“I remember getting the medicine they give you in your chest. It just like jolts you right out of whatever OD I was in. I was like, ‘What's up?’ I woke right up, and then I just like threw up, and then I think they had to intubate me soon after,” Laura said.

Laura, now a sober, successful leasing agent who’s into fitness — she even won a bodybuilding contest — struggled with addiction for years. She started using heroin during the grunge era in Portland, Oregon, and didn’t completely stop until an arrest in Charleston, South Carolina, forced her into a long-term recovery program.

“You kind of have to get to that place where you're like sick and tired. You're just like, ‘I can't do this anymore.’ Not everybody makes it.”

As an advisory recently issued recently by the South Carolina Department of Health and Environmental Control shows, an increasing number of people aren’t making it. State health leaders primarily blame powerful synthetic opioids such as illegally-made fentanyl. Other states are dealing with the same situation.

Lindsay Jennings 
Dr. Lindsey Jennings

While the increase started in 2019, DHEC says it appears to have accelerated during the pandemic. That rings true to emergency medicine doctor Lindsey Jennings at MUSC Health. The number of people who come to her emergency department after an overdose has gone from about 10 a month to almost double that.

“I don't think anyone knows for sure why this is happening,” Jennings said. “Certainly, COVID has put strains on people's everyday lives. It has affected treatment availability in some cases. It’s affected a lot of the social support that many of these patients need such as peer recovery groups. It’s certainly a multi-factorial and a complicated question, but certainly the social isolation and stress of COVID is a contributor to that.”

Laura thinks pandemic-driven job losses are part of the problem, too. “When the job goes away, the beast takes over,” she said, remembering her own experiences. “Whenever I lost work, that's when the disease took off, you know? Cause you have no accountability, you don’t have to report to anybody.”

MUSC Health is part of the national effort to try to keep people from dying from drug overdoses. Its Emergency Department has peer recovery specialists, people who have dealt with drug issues themselves, who meet with patients right after an overdose to try to get them into treatment. 

It’s also been a national leader in connecting overdose survivors with buprenorphine while they’re still in the Emergency Department. Buprenorphine is a medication that can help people cut back on or quit using opioids.

MUSC Health also gives people at risk of overdosing free Naloxone kits to take home. Naloxone can reverse an opioid overdose. Jennings said it’s important to do everything possible. “Depending on which study you look at, 5 to 10% of patients who come to the ED with an overdose are going to die within a year. We have access to those patients at a very vulnerable time.”

Laura hopes they get the help they need during what can be an isolating time. “With the pandemic, I feel like people are feeling alone.”

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