CENTRE COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — Researchers at Penn State University are studying what happens to overdose cases when a opioid epidemic meets a global pandemic.
“Overdoses were quite high in 2018, and then they began to go down in 2019 due to a variety of measures,” said Brian King, professor of geography at Penn State University.
King said they’re losing ground on that progress, however, and Pennsylvania is seeing significant increases in overdoses due to the pandemic.
While the CDC highlights strictly fatal overdoses, this team of researchers is looking at both fatal and non-fatal overdoses to capture how encompassing the epidemic is. They’ve been interviewing public health providers in PA for qualitative information.
“They’ve been saying to us for over a year now, how concerned they are,” said King.
Also in those conversations, they’ve learned there are a higher number of relapses. This may all be a side effect of the pandemic.
“What’s revealing is that the mental health pressures, economic pressures, disruption to traditional treatment services like in-person counseling if you’re undergoing treatment, has been very disruptive,” said King.
In their findings so far, the most impacted communities have been White and Black populations between 30 and 40 years old.
“We don’t have a good sense yet now, if the pandemic has expanded the reach of the U.S. opioid epidemic, or if it’s just intensified it,” said King.
Increased telehealth gave some people access to counseling they didn’t have before.
“Prior to the pandemic, there were more restrictions on provisions on certain kinds of drugs, how you would see an addiction treatment counselor, and then due to the pandemic, they had to relax that,” said King.
For others, the technology involved in receiving telehealth treatments was a barrier.
“For people who were already really vulnerable to certain kinds of conditions, who were really actively pursuing addiction treatment and then just have that completely change in a lot of ways during the pandemic has been really heartbreaking,” said King.
King said it’s unclear at that point if the same access to telehealth will remain in place once the pandemic is over.
Their research is ongoing.