Study reveals trends in opioid overdose deaths in nine states during the COVID-19 pandemic

BOSTON – The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the social support and economic stability of many individuals, which experts have warned could lead to a rise in opioid overdoses and opioid-related deaths. In a recent study shared on medRxiv, researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH) and Harvard Medical School characterized how the nature of such deaths have changed in nine9 U.S. states since the onset of the pandemic.

The study examined trends in opioid overdose deaths in Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, Massachusetts, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Utah and Wyoming during the COVID-19 pandemic as compared with 2018 and 2019.

The analysis revealed various trends that arose during the pandemic:

  • Opioid overdose death rates increased in five of the nine states: Alaska, Colorado, Indiana, North Carolina, and Rhode Island.
  • The types of opioids involved in overdose deaths are changing. For example, Alaska, Colorado, Connecticut, Indiana, and North Carolina experienced a simultaneous increase in the presence of synthetic opioids and a decrease in the presence of heroin among opioid overdose deaths. Also, there was a significant increase in the proportion of opioid overdose deaths involving cocaine in Alaska and Colorado and psychostimulants in Massachusetts.
  • The demographic groups most affected by opioid overdose may be shifting. For example, there were increases in the proportion of males who died from opioid overdoses in Colorado and Indiana.

“Drug overdose data are collected and reported more slowly than COVID-19 data, from about 4 to 8 months’ lag in Massachusetts and North Carolina to over one year in Maryland and Ohio,” says senior author Mohammad S. Jalali, PhD, MSc, a senior scientist at MGH’s Institute for Technology Assessment and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School. “This lagged reporting has clouded the understanding of the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on opioid-related overdose deaths. Our work represents the first multi-state report with detailed analyses.”  

The results may be useful for identifying and treating at-risk individuals. “Practitioners and policy makers can use our findings to help them anticipate which groups of people might be most affected by opioid overdose and which types of policy interventions might be most effective given each state’s unique situation,” says lead author Gian-Gabriel P. Garcia, PhD, who was a postdoctoral fellow at MGH and Harvard Medical School during the study and is currently an assistant professor at Georgia Tech.

Co-authors of the study include Erin J. Stringfellow, PhD, MSW, Catherine DiGennaro, BA1,
Nicole Poellinger, MPH, Jaden Wood, BA, and Sarah Wakeman, MD.

 About the Massachusetts General Hospital
Massachusetts General Hospital, founded in 1811, is the original and largest teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School. The Mass General Research Institute conducts the largest hospital-based research program in the nation, with annual research operations of more than $1 billion and comprises more than 9,500 researchers working across more than 30 institutes, centers and departments. In August 2021, Mass General was named #5 in the U.S. News & World Report list of “America’s Best Hospitals.”