The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a rise in overdoses.

The COVID-19 pandemic contributed to a rise in overdoses. Credit: iStock

One of the most insidious tragedies of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the way it makes so much that was already bad, worse.

For years, Long Island has suffered through an opioid epidemic, and the coronavirus has exacerbated that conflagration, erasing recent gains. Now Nassau and Suffolk counties have been forced to grapple with double-digit projected percentage increases in 2020 fatal drug overdoses, according to Newsday analyses.

The pandemic’s ties to drug overdoses are a window into just how isolating and disruptive the last year has been. It was a year in which people couldn’t gather or easily meet, meaning those struggling with substance abuse often lost access to in-person support groups and newcomers couldn't connect to groups and sponsors. Outpatient services went virtual, which doesn’t work for everyone. And drug users were more likely to use drugs without people around, making it less likely that a friend could call for help or administer Narcan, which can reverse opioid overdoses.

It was a year when routines changed, including how people buy and sell drugs. The supply of some drugs such as heroin was disrupted by reduced mobility and travel, and people may have felt exposed venturing out to meet their usual dealers on traffic-free roads. Some might have used less and then had trouble when they returned, or found new sources for their fix which came with increased risks of more lethal, fentanyl-added mixes. Drug purchases aided by social media or the dark web remain a problem.

It was also a year that hit mental health hard, given so much uncertainty and danger and loss and the removal of social structures as the world outside shut down. For some, the stress of job loss or being disconnected from family and friends pushed people to embrace substances, alcohol or opioids. For those in recovery already, the chances of relapsing increased. And when you return to opioids after going cold turkey, recovery experts say, there’s a risk that your tolerance has diminished enough to result in an overdose.

With the pandemic easing on Long Island, the overdose threat could be stabilizing. Still, the threat has been too urgent for too long. Drug prevention and recovery programs need to be ramped up quickly, and that means utilizing the quick flow of federal money that is available from the American Rescue Plan. Law enforcement must continue trying to disrupt drug distribution networks and diverting people who need help into treatment.

Some pandemic adjustments could end up being benefits down the road, like the option of telehealth for certain recovery services, which could be helpful particularly on Long Island where transportation can be such a challenge.

But by and large, we need people to resume their normal routines, meeting the peer-support groups they once relied on, getting to the appointments that can get them back on track, and reengaging with the wider world that is returning — slowly — to normal.

— The editorial board