Our Opinion: Meanwhile, opioids … | Editorial | greensboro.com – Greensboro News & Record

As much we keep hoping it will go away, the coronavirus just keeps on bedeviling us in mind, body and spirit.
One Triad hospital has been so overwhelmed with COVID that the National Guard has been called in.
Twenty-five guard soldiers and airmen were deployed Thursday at Alamance Regional Medical Center, where they will work alongside an undermanned medical staff until March 4. Alamance Regional’s parent organization, Greensboro’s Cone Health, asked for the assistance.
So, even as COVID appears to have peaked in North Carolina, it is still wreaking havoc.
Meanwhile, a crisis that long preceded COVID rages on as well. North Carolina Health News recently reported that increasing numbers of people are being rushed to hospital emergency departments across the state after overdosing on opioids, specifically fentanyl.
Drug overdose emergency department visits rose from 2019 to 2020, with preliminary data suggesting another increase in 2021.
As for COVID, the pandemic and opioids have been entwined from the start. The mental health challenges of the virus are widely seen as one of the drivers of increased drug use. And both mostly unvaccinated COVID patients and opioid overdose patients have strained the capacity of hospitals to cope.
Fentanyl is a synthetic painkiller that is 80 to 100 times more powerful than morphine. It is now commonly used as an additive to other illegal drugs, such as heroin, cocaine or methamphetamine. And over time, the Pew Research Center says in a new report, it has broadened the footprint of opioid addiction, which initially involved mostly white Americans.
“While overdose death rates have increased in every major demographic group in recent years, no group has seen a bigger increase than Black men,” the report says. “As a result, Black men have overtaken American Indian or Alaska Native men and white men as the demographic group most likely to die from overdoses.”
In 2020, Black men comprised 54.1% of opioid overdose deaths, up from 17.3% in 2015. During that same time span, the deaths among White men jumped from 26.2% in 2015 to 44.2% in 2020.
“The opioid crisis has kind of fallen from the headlines because of the COVID pandemic,” state Attorney General Josh Stein told WECT-TV. “You know, justifiably, that’s the biggest health story. But because of COVID, opioids have become deadlier than ever. More people have died this year than any year in history and it’s the deadliest drug epidemic in American history.”
A new, bipartisan congressional report says as much.
Calling opioid addiction “one of our most pressing national security, law enforcement and public challenges,” the report rightly suggests a balanced approach to the problem:
Ramping up law enforcement efforts to curb the flow and supply of these illegal drugs.
Using “best practices” approaches to treatment, a welcome departure from treating addiction as a crime rather than a disease.
Cutting the supply of the chemicals used to manufacture fentanyl through diplomatic efforts with other countries.
Making the White House Office of National Drug Policy a command center for federal initiatives and restoring its director to Cabinet-level status.
In North Carolina, there are other issues, including deep and hurtful cuts to mental health services and tighter restrictions on doctors’ ability to prescribe legal painkillers.
The doctors’ dilemma has been a particularly difficult question as some people with chronic pain are unable to get medication. Proposed new federal guidelines would encourage a more compassionate approach that “has a much more caring voice than a policing one,” Dr. Samer Narouze, president of the American Society of Regional Anesthesia and Pain Medicine, told The New York Times.
More good news: North Carolina is expected to receive at least $750 million from a national settlement with drug manufacturers to help fund treatment.
Also encouraging is that efforts to combat the scourge of opioid abuse have involved Democrats and Republicans. So far, at least.
In an era in which common ground increasingly has become no man’s land (we can’t even unite against the pandemic) here’s hoping that’s not the case this time.
Here’s what’s at stake:
If you were to sprinkle just a pinch of fentanyl — 2 milligrams — on the face of a penny, it barely would be enough to cover the year on that coin.
But it would be more than enough to kill most people.
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