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Opioid overdose deaths 'skyrocketing' during COVID-19 pandemic, Ohio medical experts say

Healthy State Alliance is an initiative involving members from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Bon Secours Mercy Health.
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COLUMBUS, Ohio — A panel of specialists addressed the negative impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the opioid epidemic in Ohio during an Ohio State wellness briefing on Wednesday. 

Healthy State Alliance is an initiative involving members from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center and Bon Secours Mercy Health, a Cincinnati-based health care company. 

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths reached record high levels during the pandemic in 2020 when more than 93,000 people lost their lives. It was the largest single-year percentage increase since 1999, the CDC reports. 

Specialists with Healthy State Alliance say many patients have struggled to access care during the pandemic. When the pandemic shifted appointments to telehealth, Dr. Robert Zukas with Bon Secours Mercy Health says many patients didn't have access to that kind of technology. 

That, along with the stress of isolation and factors regarding mental health, has contributed to a spike in overdose deaths, Zukas said. Additionally, Zukas said images of the COVID-19 vaccine can actually trigger patients who might view a syringe as drug paraphernalia.   

In an effort to help those patients, the Healthy State Alliance has created a perinatal medication for opioid use disorder clinic in Toledo. The Medications for Opioid Use Disorder program has seen a steady increase in participation, according to Zukas, helping more than 200,000 patients across the Healthy State Alliance.  

At Ohio State, the STEP program helps pregnant mothers who are suffering from addiction receive OB-GYN care as well as substance abuse treatment. Dr. Andrew Thomas with Ohio State Wexner Medical Center says the goal is to train providers to eventually offer those services at all OB-GYN locations. 

Opioids are not only dangerous for the loss of life they can cause. Medical experts say they also play a role in human trafficking. 

"This has been just an extraordinarily tough past two years," said Dr. Carson Felkel, who works in behavioral health. "A lot of chaos that has triggered a lot of trauma in these individuals that we take care of." 

According to Felkel, opioid use disorder goes hand-in-hand with human trafficking, in part due to coercion, but also because survivors turn to them to numb the physical and mental pain. Felkel added opioid overdose deaths are "skyrocketing" as a result of the pandemic. 

Specifically, Felkel pointed to a recent sex trafficking sting uncovered in Columbus that led to the recovery of 10 missing children and many arrests. 

"That just speaks towards the need for us to continue focusing on this very important mission," said Felkel.  

Following the briefing, the Healthy State Alliance will host a virtual Opioid Symposium this Saturday. 

You can watch Wednesday's briefing in the player below:

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