Drug overdose deaths increase during pandemic, hit rural areas

A new CDC study shows an increase in drug overdose deaths during the first months of the pandemic, with rural South Dakota seeing a 50% spike in its average that reflects 31 more deaths.

Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma L.D. sit on a shelf at a local pharmacy in Provo
Bottles of prescription painkiller OxyContin, 40mg pills, made by Purdue Pharma L.D. sit on a shelf at a local pharmacy, in Provo, Utah, U.S., April 25, 2017. REUTERS/George Frey/File Photo

Drug overdose deaths increased nationwide in the first three months of the COVID-19 pandemic, but rural America saw the biggest spike.

According to preliminary numbers in a recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug-related deaths increased about 10% while the pandemic was first hitting the country. The biggest increase in fatal overdoses happened in rural South Dakota, where drug-related fatalities increased by nearly 50%.

There were over 19,000 fatal overdoses in the U.S. from January through March of this year, according to CDC data, which is close to 3,000 more deaths than the same time frame last year.

The rise in overdose fatalities may not all be blamed on the pandemic, as the U.S. had record-high drug overdose deaths in 2019, according to CDC data, with opioids involved in 2 out of every 3 drug-related deaths. If the trend shown in the most recent CDC study continues, the country will set a new record for drug overdose deaths again this year.

A 2017 poll sponsored by the American Farm Bureau Federation and National Farmers Union revealed that 74% of farmers and farm workers say they have been directly affected by the opioid epidemic. Results from the poll also revealed that 3 in 4 farmers said it was easy to access large amounts of opioids without a prescription, and only 1 in 3 rural adults said it would be easy to access addiction treatment.


The shocking numbers resulted in the American Farm Bureau Foundation along with the National Farmers Union creating the Farm Town Strong initiative, to help farm families overcome drug addiction with strong farmer-to-farmer support.

Mike Stranz, policy director for Farm Town Strong, said the biggest goal of the campaign was to raise awareness about the problems the opioid epidemic brings to rural America.

"There was a lot stigma involved with it, and we wanted to make sure farmers knew it was a common issue and shouldn't be a shame or blame situation," Stranz said. "We wanted to get the word out that it's a very serious health issue that people should seek help for it."

With farming being a dangerous profession, Stranz said farmers are often prescribed opioids to combat pain from an injury or ailment. He said the volatile farm economy then adds stress to the day-to-day of a farmer, and the combination of it all can easily lead to a drug dependence.

Stranz said the economic issues, uncertainty and social isolation that stemmed from the pandemic make the situation even more worrisome.

The mission behind the Farm Town Strong campaign may be bolstered by recent news from the Department of Justice that OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma agreed to a massive settlement, Stranz said. The settlement by the company blamed for fueling the opioid epidemic is worth more than $8 billion and is to resolve a federal probe of its marketing practices for opioids. Purdue's owners will also pay $225 million in a civil settlement.

Stranz said he couldn't speak to specifics because the details of the settlement are still unclear, but the money will likely go to figuring out more ways to fight opioid addiction.

"It sounds like there's going to be some public effort to combat the epidemic with some of those civil and criminal penalties," Stranz said.


Journalist and author Sam Quinones explains in his book "Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic" that the opioid epidemic in America stemmed from a campaign in the mid-1990s by the American Pain Society for doctors to start treating pain as the fifth vital sign. Legal opioid prescriptions skyrocketed, and even though most doctors and medical associations were worried about the drugs causing addiction, they were under pressure to start treating pain more aggressively.

"Years later, in fact, there still is no evidence of how many chronic pain patients can be successfully treated with opiates without growing dependent, then addicted," writes Quinones. "Determining who is a good candidate for opiate treatment is a mystery."

Quinones cites that daily usage for less than a month of a commonly prescribed opioid dose, such as 30 milligrams of oxycodone, is enough to trigger an addiction.

If you or someone close to you needs help for a substance use disorder, call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration help line at 1-800-662-HELP (4357).

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