We are facing a terrible public health crisis affecting thousands of individuals and families in Massachusetts. The disease can be difficult to discover, diagnose and treat. While it can harm people of all backgrounds, it disproportionately impacts some of our community’s most vulnerable. It has taken a toll on our economy and is often the talk in business circles and on Beacon Hill.
But now, amid the coronavirus pandemic, our fight against the opioid epidemic may take a wrong turn.
The Massachusetts Department of Public health’s data from the first quarter of 2020 show that despite an overall decline in overdose deaths compared to the first quarter of 2019, rates of opioid overdose deaths for Black men, Hispanic men, and Black women all increased notably. While the 2020 second-quarter numbers from Massachusetts have not yet been released, the American Medical Association is reporting that more than 40 states have reported an increase in drug-related deaths. In fact, in neighboring Connecticut, that state’s Department of Public health recorded a 21.4 percent spike in overdoses during the peak of the pandemic.
It is imperative that we recognize the severity of the situation we now face. Health experts believe that the COVID-19 pandemic has and will cause more suffering and death among people with opioid use disorder (OUD). At this critical moment, we must lend our support to organizations that are on the frontline of both health crises and not lose sight of this vital public health priority.
We have seen firsthand that social determinants of health – access to healthy food, housing, and employment or educational opportunities – correlate to higher rates of COVID-19 infection and death. In Boston, early in the pandemic, a large homeless shelter was home to an early cluster of COVID-19 with a 36 percent positivity rate. But we have to make note of the fact that the social and economic impacts of the pandemic and quarantine – people out of work or school, social support systems crushed, transportation becoming limited and dangerous – are leading to an exacerbation of those inequities. Existing health disparities will widen at a time of such major stress to our social, health care and economic systems.
RIZE and our community partners sounded the alarm in March. We knew that as time, energy and valuable public health resources were shifted to combat the coronavirus, it would leave people with OUD, even despite our years of progress, more vulnerable. We quickly mobilized our grant-making resources and created a COVID-19 Rapid Response Fund to disburse $200,000 in crucial funding to 25 nonprofit organizations suddenly strained by the pandemic. In May, RIZE collaborated with the Boston Resiliency Fund to award $500,000 in additional grants to nonprofits working with vulnerable populations.
The work of these and other incredible nonprofits is just a sample of what has been happening in communities across the commonwealth. While local organizations may rely on state funding or grants, they also need people in their communities to support them through donations of time and money.
We can also maintain the fight if we each do our part to address the epidemic through individual words and actions.
Let’s be sure to not lose sight of the epidemic as we throw everything we can at the pandemic.
Julie Burns is the President and CEO of RIZE Massachusetts Foundation, the only nonprofit organization solely dedicated to ending the opioid crisis in Massachusetts. On Aug. 31, RIZE will observe International Opioid Awareness Day, when the world will be honoring the lives of people lost to the drug overdose epidemic.