In-depth: Fighting the deadly growth of opioid overdoses during COVID-19

94,000+ Americans died due to opioid overdose in 2020
Posted at 4:00 PM, Aug 31, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-31 17:16:05-04

SPRING HILL, Fla. — Over the past year and a half, the number of fatal opioid overdoses continued to increase. Many people going through addiction recovery said it’s been harder to get the help they need because in-person, support meetings stopped during the pandemic.

Imagine having to go through drug addiction recovery alone. That’s exactly how many people in recovery felt during the pandemic. According to the CDC, more than 94,000 people died nationwide due to opioid overdose in 2020. That’s a 30 percent increase over 2019 and the highest number of overdose-related deaths ever recorded. The CDC said Florida is second in the nation in overdose deaths, behind only California.

Justin McPadden is one of the hosts of the Hope Shot podcast. It goes live on Facebook Live every Wednesday and Sunday at 8 p.m., focusing on the struggles of addiction recovery and success stories.

“Hey, guys. Welcome back. Glad you’re here tonight. Tonight, we have our 'Addiction to Success' series,” said Justin as he opened the podcast.

Nearly 10,000 people from around the world have liked their page. Justin and a friend started the Hope Shot podcast in January to help those struggling with addiction during the pandemic.

“It just came from an idea. We were in RaceTrac parking lot," Justin said. "We were talking about recovery and how our recovery was lacking and how this pandemic has caused a lot of that.”

“You know, it was bizarre. All of the 12-Step clubhouses shut down,” said Kellie Rodriguez with Alliance for Substance Addiction Prevention. “A disease that thrives in the darkness. That thrives in isolation and you shut down any sort of community that we had. So, overdose rates skyrocketed.”

The Pasco County Sheriff’s Office reports that nearly 1,500 people overdosed in 2020. That’s a 71% increase over 2019. A figure that has many in the addiction prevention community concerned. Rodriguez said another reason for the increase in overdoses is because opening up and seeking help is new for a lot of people.

“You don’t have the coping skills because you’re not talking about it," Rodriguez said. "Like, how can you learn how to cope when you’re not talking about it, to begin with, and that crosses cultural barriers, as well.”

A relatively new treatment for those struggling with opioid addiction is called digital therapeutics. It allows people to receive guided help using a phone or computer.

“So, it’s a very flexible program and it’s really tailored to meet the particular patient’s needs and preferences,” said Dr. Joseph Volpicelli, who’s a world-renowned scientist and clinician who advocates for digital therapeutic treatment for addictions.

The program assesses how you’re doing. It keeps track of your progress and most importantly, it teaches you strategies on how to deal with addiction.

“But it also has a motivational interviewing component built-in so that if I don’t seem very interested in treatment, it goes through a different path to help get me more involved with treatment,” Dr. Volpicelli said.

Dr. Volpicelli said, sometimes finding help for opioid addiction can be difficult because of the social stigma, and finding an effective therapist in your area that you feel comfortable with can be another hurdle.

“This is a good way to have therapy without having to go through all of those various barriers," Volpicelli said. "And the other advantage of the digital therapeutic is that it’s available anytime the person needs it, anywhere there’s an internet connection."

As for Justin, he plans on continuing to help people around the world in the way he knows how. By sharing stories of success and the light that’s on the other side of addiction.

“We need to raise people up and empower people instead of breaking them down and stop using their past as a weapon because if I wasn’t strong enough, I’ve might’ve been right back out there. Who knows?” Justin said.

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, here are some helpful links.