At a virtual symposium last week at Oklahoma State University, experts talked about treatment methods that could benefit Native Americans suffering from opioid use disorder. The information is important and timely, as the COVID-19 pandemic has only heightened the nation's opioid problems.

An analysis by The Wall Street Journal of data provided by the nation’s largest counties found that pandemic has exacerbated the longstanding drug overdose crisis. The Journal asked the 50 largest counties for information about overdoses this year. Thirty provided data, and 21 of those showed an upward trend in overdose deaths compared with last year.

Citing public health officials and treatment providers, the newspaper said Tuesday the pandemic “has destabilized people trying to maintain sobriety or who are struggling with addiction during a time of increased social isolation and stress.”

In addition, “social-distancing limitations are complicating treatment for people who struggle with addiction and for the organizations that provide services to them,” the Journal reported.

This jibes with findings by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. Its survey of U.S. adults found that 13% of respondents in June reported starting or increasing substance abuse to deal with COVID-19-related stress.

The Journal cited findings by the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, which compiles real-time overdose numbers nationwide. Data from the ODMAP showed that suspected overdoses increased almost 18% after widespread implementation of stay-at-home orders in mid-March compared with the months before the pandemic hit.

In Los Angeles County, overdoses increased by 48% in the first six weeks of the pandemic compared with the same period in 2019, the Journal found.

The analysis also found that officials in many localities say the pandemic is “amplifying the threat” from methamphetamines and from fentanyl, a highly powerful synthetic opioid. Both were already major contributors to the nation’s overdose crisis.

More than 72,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in 2019, one year after the number of U.S. drug deaths dropped slightly for the first time in nearly three decades. Amid the pandemic, the co-founder of a help group in Massachusetts told the Journal, “I feel like all the work we did reducing overdoses just got tossed out the window.”

At the Stillwater symposium, Kathy Etz, director of Native American Programs and program director in the Epidemiology Research Branch for the National Institute on Drug Abuse, said medication assisted treatment — combining use of medications with counseling and behavioral therapies — is considered the most effective treatment for opioid use disorder.

However, Etz also said culturally adapted practices, such as cultural mentoring and sweat lodge ceremonies, could be important in prevention and treatment for Native Americans.

“We’re not exactly clear how culture acts as a preventive force or how it can be helpful in treatment,” Etz said, “and yet we certainly know from qualitative data that it’s critically important.”

More than 72,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in 2019, one year after the number of U.S. drug deaths dropped slightly for the first time in nearly three decades. Amid the pandemic, the co-founder of a help group in Massachusetts told the Journal, “I feel like all the work we did reducing overdoses just got tossed out the window.”

The Oklahoman

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