Men, jobless and people with mental health diagnoses most vulnerable in 2020 overdose spike

New findings about the causes and characteristics of overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic may be used to inform policies that could lower death rates even after COVID-19 is under control.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] – At the same time as COVID-19 has claimed more than 600,000 lives across the United States, drug overdose deaths across the nation reached unprecedented heights. Rhode Island has been particularly affected: In December 2020, the state had the highest rate in the country of COVID-19 cases and deaths relevant to population; during the first eight months of 2020, the rate of unintentional drug overdose deaths in Rhode Island increased 28% relative to the same period in the prior year.

Researchers at Brown University’s School of Public Health wanted to learn more about the causes of the overdoses during the pandemic, as well as the people affected by them, as scant data were available. They analyzed two years of health data to look for trends and patterns.

According to their study, published on Friday, Sept. 17, in JAMA Network Open, men, individuals who had lost jobs and people with mental health diagnoses experienced the largest increases in rates of overdose deaths during the pandemic. The researchers also found increases in deaths involving synthetic opioids and in deaths occurring in personal residences (compared to a hospital or elsewhere).

“Our motivation for this study was to understand more about the causes and characteristics of these overdose deaths and to identify some of the groups of people who are at heightened risk of overdose during the pandemic,” said Alexandria Macmadu, a study co-author and Ph.D. candidate in epidemiology at Brown.

The team analyzed information from four statewide databases linked via the Rhode Island Data Ecosystem. They compared the characteristics of 264 adults in the state who died from an overdose during the first eight months of 2020 to those of 206 adults who died from an overdose during the same period in the year prior, examining variables such as age, sex, race and ethnicity, as well as the type of drug contributing to death, location of death and socioeconomic factors such as housing insecurity, job loss and wages.

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