Blog Behavioral/Mental Health

COVID-19 affects everything: The increase in opioid-related deaths & initiatives

Written by Ola Adebayo, MPH candidate and student worker at the Institute for Public Health


Photo: Michael Longmire, Unsplash

Overdose-related deaths have reached an all-time high with more than 96,000 people dying during the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is a 30 percent increase from 2019, the largest increase ever seen of drug-related deaths in the United States. The overall death rate has increased nationwide due to the increasing availability of pills and other drugs laced with fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that is 100 times more powerful than morphine. Opioid use disorder is associated with social isolation and isolation plays a role in the development and exacerbation of the disorder.

In 2020, Missouri was ranked 18th in non-medical drug use. Rates of drug-related overdoses have increased from 16.5 to 19.6 per 100,000 from 2017 to 2018 and are continuing on the same trend. On June 28th, 2018 the St. Louis County Executive declared opioid addiction and overdose a public health emergency. Although measures have not yet been calculated by the state, the pandemic has created a devastating collision of health crises in the nation; some of which can be attributed to Missouri. As we continue to navigate through the pandemic, there has to be a prioritization of making treatment options more easily available to those with substance use disorders.

One pathway for treatment is harm reduction programs. This refers to the range of public health policies designed to lessen the negative social and physical consequences associated with both legal and illicit drug-related activities. These programs “meet users where they are” and address conditions of use along with the use itself:

  • The National Harm Reduction Coalition offers training sessions and spaces for dialogue and action centering on the harms of racialized drug policies.
  • The MONetwork is a St. Louis organization that engages in outreach, education, legislation, treatment, and harm reduction services with the ultimate mission of enabling life.
  • The Missouri Safe Project (MOSafe) is a program that seeks to address the opioid crisis and reduce the spread of infectious diseases such as HIV and Hepatitis C among Missourians who inject drugs.
  • RecoverSTL was developed to create an action plan by outlining how governmental and non-governmental entities can strengthen ongoing work and innovative initiatives. The five priority areas are: Education and Prevention, Harm Reduction and Rescue, Treatment, Recovery, and Public Health Data.