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Public Health Officials Worry Coronavirus Could Lead To New Overdose Risks


The pandemic has changed the supply of a number of goods, including illegal opioids. But there are different effects in different regions, as NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: As California went into quarantine in March, Joseph DeSanto (ph) says many drug dealers in Orange County retreated to Mexico.

JOSEPH DESANTO: So we worried about borders being shut down so everybody kind of migrated south, towards their hometowns. So we lost a lot of our larger dealers that supply the smaller dealers.

NOGUCHI: So those addicted to heroin and painkillers first turned to different drugs. DeSanto, an addiction doctor, says many of his patients then found new sources of opioids.

DESANTO: And when they had to use another dealer, they would be getting a different strength, so they weren't really sure of how they should measure it and how much they should use. So we started to see a lot of overdoses and a lot of overdose deaths in the first couple of weeks of the pandemic.

NOGUCHI: Meanwhile, on the opposite coast of the country in Cambridge, Mass., opioid supply apparently remains dry.

JACK MACEACHERN: No one's out on the street. It's just not out there.

NOGUCHI: Jack MacEachern runs a Salvation Army residential drug recovery program there. He says it's not just that the dealers aren't getting shipments. Their customers also can't get money to buy them.

MACEACHERN: So if you have a dope habit and, you know, the way you hustle or make your money is shoplifting, well, so I suppose.

NOGUCHI: MacEachern has been in recovery from opioid addiction for two decades himself. There's no national data about how the pandemic has affected overdoses, but MacEachern says relapse and overdose rates near him have decreased, at least for now. The country's illegal drug trade, like everything else, has been disrupted by quarantine. Uttam Dhillon is acting administrator of the Drug Enforcement Agency. He says that's especially true for methamphetamine but also for cocaine and heroin.

UTTAM DHILLON: We're seeing the availability of these drugs being impacted in a variety of locations throughout the country.

NOGUCHI: Dhillon says some of the normal transit routes through Asia or South America have shut down. He also points to dramatic decreases in car and foot traffic to and from Mexico, the main source of America's heroin.

DHILLON: The ability of these drug trafficking organizations to move drugs across the southwest border, we believe, may be having an impact.

NOGUCHI: A decreased supply of drugs might sound good, but it also increases the risk of overdoses in the future, especially as many states reopen for business. Heidi Ginter is chief medical officer of Recovery Centers of America, which operates 11 recovery centers around the country. During the lockdown, she saw an influx of patients unable to buy opioids, who then sought treatment to avoid painful withdrawal. People who reduce their use may be at especially high risk if they start using again.

HEIDI GINTER: We may see additional potency of drug available on the street and then people whose tolerance has changed based on what they've been using. So we're pretty fearful about that, and we'll stay very vigilant to keep people safe.

NOGUCHI: That concern has led to talk of increasing distribution of Naloxone, a medication often used to try to reverse an overdose. Elinore McCance-Katz is in favor of that. She heads the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. But, she points out, the virus has also complicated the ability to treat people with Naloxone.

ELINORE MCCANCE-KATZ: In some areas, first responders such as law enforcement do not want to administer Naloxone because they are afraid of being exposed to coronavirus. I have found that very concerning because the option is that the person dies.

NOGUCHI: She says her agency is now sending training teams into communities to help them safely administer the Naloxone while also managing the risk of exposure. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Yuki Noguchi
Yuki Noguchi is a correspondent on the Science Desk based out of NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. She started covering consumer health in the midst of the pandemic, reporting on everything from vaccination and racial inequities in access to health, to cancer care, obesity and mental health.