During the height of the pandemic in the spring of 2020 the nation found itself facing an increase in drug overdose deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Health officials say between March and May of last year there was a dramatic acceleration of fatal drug overdoses. The tragic deaths, primarily driven by synthetic opioids, occurring as states implemented measures like lockdowns to combat COVID-19.
But the tragic U.S. trend started in February of 2019 and by May of 2020, the CDC had recorded about 81,230 drug overdose deaths. This is the largest number of drug overdose fatalities ever recorded in the United States during a 12-month period.
New Jersey’s been at the forefront of the heart-breaking issue for years, and in May, the Attorney General’s Division of Consumer Affairs instituted temporary drug prescription requirements to fight the deadly opioid addiction epidemic.
On Thursday, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal announced four new actions to help prevent fatal overdoses in the Garden State. The first action is a final rule requiring doctors who prescribe opioids for chronic pain management to also prescribe naloxone to certain patients who may be at risk of a fatal overdose. The measure had already been adopted by the State Board of Medical Examiners. Naloxone, sold under brands like Narcan, counteracts a drug overdose.
“By requiring the co-prescription of naloxone, we are ensuring that chronic pain patients and their families have ready access to a lifesaving antidote to reverse an opioid overdose,” the Attorney General said. “The actions announced today are the latest examples of how New Jersey is wielding its regulatory authority as a powerful tool in the fight to end the opioid epidemic and save the lives of New Jersey residents.”
The other three actions are proposals, and if adopted, would impose similar co-prescribing rules for doctors licensed by the Board of Dentistry, Board of Nursing and Board of Optometrists.
Kristina Henderson, 29, who was crowned Mrs. New Jersey in 2020 and will compete in the National Mrs. American title competition next month in Las Vegas, has been sounding the alarm since winning her competition.
“I am learning that addiction is everywhere,” Henderson said. “It could be alcohol, it could be opioids — especially alcohol — where everyone’s reaching for a glass of alcohol, where people are home drinking. It could be something like that that ends up spiraling because of the pandemic.”
Henderson’s family knows all too well the pain of losing a loved one to drugs. Her brother-in-law, Seth Henderson, died of an opioid overdose in 2011 at the age of 26.
“He passed away two months before I met my husband,” Henderson said. “I never got the opportunity to meet him but from what I hear he was just an incredible person, full of life, great personality, and it’s just so tragic, and I’ve seen the pain that a family has losing a loved one, and it’s so important that we educate our youth on the dangers of addiction.”
Henderson works with Monmouth County-based Tigger House Foundation, which was inspired by the suffering of another family. In 2013, Lisa and Rick Stavola’s 25-year-old son “Tigger,” whose real name was Richard, died of an accidental overdose.
Henderson’s husband, Bart, and “Tigger’s” brother, Alex, are best friends and both men have endured the kind of agony no family should ever have to go through.
“Depression, it causes people to seek to find a way to fill that void so mental health should really be focused on,” said Henderson, who also runs a business that’s donated over 100,000 masks to non-profits and food banks.
During the pandemic, loneliness, isolation, job loss, the rising deaths attributed to the Coronavirus and sheer hopelessness, have pushed many people struggling with addiction over the edge.
President Joe Biden’s “American Rescue Plan,” the latest COVID relief package, provides funding for both mental health and drug addiction.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has compounded the pre-existing mental health and substance use disorder
challenges we were already confronting before the onset of the pandemic,” New Jersey Democratic Congressman Frank Pallone said in a statement. “Unfortunately, fatal drug overdoses are at an all-time high while millions more are suffering from trauma, stress, and loss. Thankfully Congress passed legislation in December that I helped author to increase funding for mental health and substance use disorder services.”
Pallone, who represents New Jersey’s 6th Congressional District, says his Energy and Commerce Committee approved more than $4 billion in funding for behavioral and mental health services badly needed across the country.
“This funding, which is part of the overall COVID relief package, should be voted on by the full House in the coming weeks,” Pallone said. “I also believe we need to do more to help people who are struggling with substance use disorders through improved access to Medication-Assisted Treatment and ensuring prevention, treatment, and recovery services are available to everyone who needs them. Americans are dealing with both a viral pandemic as well as a behavioral health crisis and it’s incredibly important that we respond to both with the urgency that they require.”
The proposed funding would enable the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA) to expand access to vital mental health and substance use disorder services.
Henderson says she is focusing on young people, who are also feeling alone and isolated, many unable to attend schools in person. She’s involved with Tigger House Foundation’s “Student Alliance Program,” which started educating students on the dangers of addiction way before the pandemic.
“We’re doing a lot of Zooms with the schools right now with Tigger House Foundation,” Henderson said. “We do these Zooms and we talk with students, we make sure they are being productive, they’re seizing each day, they’re involved in hobbies and sports, or that they’re just doing something to better their future because addiction starts when you’re bored at home. Everyone is stuck at home right now and it’s really easy to get lost. So, it’s really important that we’re there for those who might fall victim to addiction, and that we really help the youth stay active and stay positive during this time where it could be very negative for a lot of people.”
Henderson says it’s also important to continue to change the stigma surrounding addiction.
“A lot of people don’t want to talk about it,” she said, “They want to brush it under the rug. They just don’t feel comfortable bringing it to light but it is important that we support our neighbors and we are here to combat this issue and make it okay to talk about it as a disease. People need to understand that and really be there for someone who needs help.”
- American Rescue Plan
- Frank Pallone
- Gurbir Grewal
- Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA)
- Joe Biden
- Kristina Henderson
- Lisa Stavola
- Mrs. New Jersey
- Rick Stavola
- Student Alliance Program
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA)
- Tigger House Foundation
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