Sounding the alarm: Seeing warning signs of an epidemic within the COVID pandemic (Viewpoint)

August 30, 2020

By MassLive

We are facing a terrible public health crisis affecting thousands of individuals and families in Massachusetts. The disease can be difficult to discover, diagnose and treat. While it can harm people of all backgrounds, it disproportionately impacts some of our community’s most vulnerable. It has taken a toll on our economy and is often the talk in business circles and on Beacon Hill.

But now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, our fight against the opioid epidemic may take a wrong turn.

Despite progress in reducing overdose deaths in Massachusetts prior to the COVID-19 surge earlier this year, the latest data from the commonwealth – and streaming in from across the nation – are a reminder that we cannot forget about the opioid epidemic while our attention is trained on addressing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Massachusetts Department of Public health’s data from the first quarter of 2020 show that despite an overall decline in overdose deaths compared to the first quarter of 2019, rates of opioid overdose deaths for Black men, Hispanic men, and Black women all increased notably. While the 2020 second-quarter numbers from Massachusetts have not yet been released, the American Medical Association is reporting that more than 40 states have reported an increase in drug-related deaths. In fact, in neighboring Connecticut, that state’s Department of Public health recorded a 21.4 percent spike in overdoses during the peak of the pandemic.

It is imperative that we recognize the severity of the situation we now face. Health experts believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has and will cause more suffering and death among people with opioid use disorder (OUD). At this critical moment, we must lend our support to organizations that are on the frontline of both health crises and not lose sight of this vital public health priority.

Specifically, more resources are needed to build capacity for identifying and treating OUD; much has been invested – it is still not enough to get us where we need to be. We have made gains since the height of the crisis but we must worry both about losing ground to COVID-19 and the fact that there has not been success in bending the addiction curve among all groups – that the Black and brown communities are experiencing a staggering loss from OUD.

We have seen firsthand that social determinants of health – access to healthy food, housing, and employment or educational opportunities – correlate to higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death. In Boston, early in the pandemic, a large homeless shelter was home to an early cluster of COVID-19 with a 36 percent positivity rate. But we have to make note of the fact that the social and economic impacts of the pandemic and quarantine – people out of work or school, social support systems crushed, transportation becoming limited and dangerous – are leading to an exacerbation of those inequities. Existing health disparities will widen at a time of such major stress to our social, health care and economic systems.

When people, including friends and family who we may think are “doing just fine” or those who are already vulnerable, are suddenly faced with these harsh changes, the likelihood of substance use naturally increases. Many in the public health community believe it is only a matter of time until we see an increase of OUD caused by the socioeconomic impacts of the pandemic.

RIZE and our community partners sounded the alarm in March. We knew that as time, energy and valuable public health resources were shifted to combat the coronavirus, it would leave people with OUD, even despite our years of progress, more vulnerable. We quickly mobilized our grant-making resources and created a COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund to disburse $200,000 in crucial funding to 25 nonprofit organizations suddenly strained by the pandemic. In May, RIZE collaborated with the Boston Resiliency Fund to award $500,000 in additional grants to nonprofits working with vulnerable populations.

Organizations including the Life Connection Center in Lowell, which feeds and supports the homeless in that community, needed money to adjust operations to follow social distancing protocols in order to continue their services. In the case of the team at Boston Health Care for the Homeless Program, they needed help building a tent to facilitate self-isolation and shift staff to support the Boston Hope field hospital – all while maintaining their efforts to treat people with OUD.

The work of these and other incredible nonprofits is just a sample of what has been happening in communities across the commonwealth. While local organizations may rely on state funding or grants, they also need people in their communities to support them through donations of time and money.

We can also maintain the fight if we each do our part to address the epidemic through individual words and actions.

Just as we have learned that wearing a mask is a powerful tool to reduce the spread of COVID-19, we know that reducing the stigma of OUD is just as critical. We must be sure to support friends and neighbors who are vulnerable, and ensure that individuals suffering from the disease have access to resources and a network to get the help they need.

Let’s be sure to not lose sight of the epidemic as we throw everything we can at the pandemic.

Julie Burns is the President and CEO of RIZE Massachusetts Foundation, the only nonprofit organization solely dedicated to ending the opioid crisis in Massachusetts. On Aug. 31, RIZE will observe International Opioid Awareness Day, when the world will be honoring the lives of people lost to the drug overdose epidemic.