The opioid epidemic was already a national crisis. Covid-19 could be making things worse

(CNN)Before the Covid-19 pandemic, the nation was in the throes of another public health crisis: the opioid epidemic.

More than 2 million Americans struggle with opioid use disorder, and about 130 Americans on average die every day from an opioid overdose. Opioids account for a majority of drug overdose deaths, the leading cause of accidental death in the US. It's a crisis that's been a priority for officials at the federal, state and local levels for years.
Now, the coronavirus has disrupted all matters of life across the country -- including efforts to combat the nation's opioid problem.
    Walk-in clinics and syringe exchange programs have been closed. Community support groups are meeting virtually.
    Some who struggle with substance abuse are homeless or incarcerated and can't comply with social distancing guidelines, while those who can are left isolated and at risk. On top of all that, the pandemic is causing massive stress -- a primary driver of relapse.
    "This changing, very strange world that we're living through could serve as a trigger for people to return to drug use," said Daliah Heller, director of drug use initiatives at the public health organization Vital Strategies. "And that brings a great potential for overdose with it."
    As local officials report spikes in overdose calls and deaths, experts and advocates say they're concerned the coronavirus pandemic is making an already serious problem worse.

    Local officials are reporting overdose spikes

    County coroners, law enforcement and emergency responders around the country are reporting spikes in overdose calls and deaths -- and they're concerned that's connected to Covid-19.
    Franklin County, Ohio, reported 28 non-fatal overdoses from last Friday night to Saturday night. The previous Friday, the county had six overdose deaths, which coroner Anahi Ortiz had described as a "surge" in a Facebook post.
    Ortiz wrote in a Facebook post on Sunday that Franklin County had seen a 50% increase in fatal overdoses from January to April 15. Sixty-two people died of overdoses in the month of April alone, she wrote.
    Niagara County in New York reported last month that drug overdoses spiked 35% from January 1 to April 6, compared to the same time last year.
    And in Jacksonville, Florida, the fire and rescue chief said the city saw a 20% increase in overdose calls from February to March.
    It's too soon to determine whether such reports are evidence of a larger trend, said Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
    Federal and state data on fatal and non-fatal overdoses for the past few months are not yet available, while coroners and medical examiners are overwhelmed with cases of Covid-19 and may not have the resources to follow up on overdose deaths, she said.
    "We do not know," Volkow said, of whether more people are overdosing in connection with Covid-19. "In many cases, we will likely never know."
    But she predicts that some communities will "absolutely" see an uptick in overdoses.

    Public health services are disrupted

    There are a few reasons that experts are concerned about a potential coronavirus-related increase in opioid overdoses.
    For one, harm reduction programs across the country have been experiencing reduced capacity given the pandemic, Heller said.