SALT LAKE CITY – A recent analysis by the Associated Press shows the United States is on track to have more overdose deaths in 2020 than ever before because of the COVID-19 pandemic. While the picture is not as bad in Utah, addiction experts are still concerned.
Suzannah Burt, a prevention program administrator with the state’s Division of Substance Abuse and Mental Health, says it’s too early to tell just how many overdose deaths Utah will see this year. All evidence indicates it will be pretty similar to the 363 combined heroin and prescription drug overdoses the state had last year.
However, Burt says people have been turning to alcohol to ease the stress of the pandemic.
Some hospitals have told the state that more people have had to go to the emergency room for alcohol poisoning than for opioids over the past couple of months.
Burt is not surprised this is happening.
“[Alcohol] is more accessible. They don’t need a prescription to get it, and it’s deemed an essential item. Bars and grocery stores continue to sell it,” Burt says.
But there are other reasons people may be slipping into an addiction or even have a temporary medical issue because of alcohol.
“We have plenty of families that may not be in that crisis mode yet. [But someone says,] ‘Oh, I’m going to have an extra glass of wine or I’m gonna have a couple of extra beers to take the edge off.’ They feel they are more stressed or more exhausted emotionally and mentally and physically,” Burt says.
Fentanyl is another huge worry for the state.
While overdose deaths may be holding steady for now in Utah, the percentage of those deaths attributable to fentanyl, a powerful opioid, has had a big jump this year.
“It went from 11% of the deaths in 2019 to now we’re at 23% of the deaths overall for all overdoses,” Burt says.
It’s unclear why more people have overdosed on fentanyl during the pandemic, but Burt says they are usually mixing it with something else.
“These fentanyl deaths are usually in combination with another substance, usually with a stimulant. Whether it’s illicit, meaning something like methamphetamine or cocaine, or with another prescription drug medication,” Burt says.
Utah has had some success in stopping methamphetamine makers in the state, but Burt says it is now being imported from other states.
Another factor that makes it more difficult for some Utahns is the feeling that they can’t get the help they need during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We’ve had a lot of barriers. Whether that’s the six feet [social distancing requirements in many places], whether it’s the safety, whether it’s having issues with internet connectivity,” Burt says. “People are more concerned about going to a facility these days because they feel that they may be at risk with COVID-19 or are a high risk individual.”
Despite the concerns, Burt says there are actually a lot of mental health options for people right now. She is encouraging those who need help to speak up and explore those options.
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