International Overdose Awareness Day: NY professor addresses the pandemic’s impact on the opioid epidemic

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TROY, N.Y. (NEWS10) — Monday marks International Overdose Awareness Day. For many advocates, it’s especially important to get their message out this year after the pandemic has led to a spike in fatal overdoses.

Nancy Campbell, Professor of Science and Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, recently published a book “OD: Naloxone and the Politics of Overdose”. It focuses on the history of overdoses in the U.S. and the U.K., as well as the social movement for access to Naloxone, or narcan, the overdose reversal drug. 

She said, while the opioid epidemic was rampant prior to the pandemic, it has certainly exacerbated things. According to the Rensselaer County Health Department, there have been 54 overdose fatalities so far in 2020 compared to 34 for all of 2019.

“The earliest news that we got in Rensselaer County was a week in March when there were twice the number of overdose deaths as there were deaths from COVID-19, and that really rang a lot of alarm bells for me,” said Campbell.

Campbell told NEWS10 one of the biggest issues is abstinence. She said if an opioid users’ supply has been disrupted by the pandemic, whether it was prescribed by a doctor, or purchased illegally, they’re not getting their usual dose. That means their tolerance level lowers, and once they do get access to an opioid, they take the amount they were previously using and it’s more than their body can handle. She added that, nowadays, almost any illegal drug has illicit fentanyl mixed in, which can worsen the reaction.

“These are highly toxic substances. Opioids are not something to mess around with,” said Campbell.

She said there are dangers of abstinence in terms of recovery as well. She said those who chose to stop using and lost access to treatment or support during the shutdown were at a higher risk for relapse.

“We know how important mutual support has been for addiction treatment and that was interrupted as well. That disruption is deadly,” said Campbell.

Additionally, she said for months, people have been isolated and using alone.

“The kind of social distancing that we are all asked to do right now and need to do to slow the pandemic, that is deadly for opioid users because Naloxone is not something you can give to yourself,” said Campbell.

Campbell is a firm believer that Naloxone is a key harm reduction tool and saves lives.

“These are entirely preventable deaths. No one should die from opioid overdoses,” said Campbell.

The Rennselaer County Health Department provides free naloxone and even offers curbside pick-up.

“Everyone who is highly likely to be around an opioid overdose should have Naloxone on their person. So that does mean recognizing that you are in that category,” said Campbell.

Campbell said following an overdose reversal it’s critical to immediately get that person the help they need.

“Honestly, waiting even 24 hours, much less 72 hours, much less a week or a month for admission to treatment is really ineffective. There needs to be a strong continuity between the overdose event and the treatment,” said Campbell.

However, she acknowledges that while treatment works, it can sometimes take a long time for it to work for someone, and oftentimes, they need to try more than one modality before they find something that really works for them.

Campbell said overdose deaths are also happening among people who have used opioids for years or even decades.

“People who die of overdoses are usually people who have overdosed before. They’re usually on their tenth overdose by the time that they die,” said Campbell.

She adds that many overdoses include those who are taking opioids for chronic pain, following their physicians’ instructions.

“We have a lot of situations where people use Fentanyl patches for pain control and they drink, use benzodiazepines or another opiate. They are very much at risk of overdose,” said Campbell.  “If you’re on high-dose opioids, including Fentanyl, even on a doctor’s prescription, you should have Naloxone on-hand and your family members should be trained to use it.”

“I think the most important thing on this International Overdose Awareness Day is to make sure you know what you’re going to do and what you’re actions are going to be if you witness an overdose event,” said Campbell.

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