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Hospital Emergency Rooms Struggle With Overdose Spike During Pandemic


During the pandemic, visits to hospital emergency departments plummeted, but a new study shows more people than ever are turning up at hospitals seeking help for drug addiction and overdoses. NPR addiction correspondent Brian Mann found many emergency doctors have struggled to respond.

BRIAN MANN, BYLINE: Emergency departments are great at treating things like chest pains and asthma attacks. After the pandemic hit, a lot of those people stopped showing up at hospitals. They were scared of catching the coronavirus. But Kristin Holland, a researcher at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says patients experiencing addiction needed help so desperately, they kept coming.

KRISTIN HOLLAND: The thing that really stood out to me about all drug overdoses and opioid overdoses - those were the only two for which we saw an increase.

MANN: Holland's study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association analyzed roughly 190 million emergency room visits. The data shows even people who didn't catch the coronavirus were hit hard by the pandemic.

HOLLAND: People are indeed experiencing poor mental health, suicidal thoughts, substance use potentially as a coping mechanism.

MANN: But there's a problem. Experts say many emergency departments aren't well-staffed or trained to help patients with these kinds of problems. Dr. Mark Rosenberg is president of the American College of Emergency Physicians.

MARK ROSENBERG: Emergency physicians have always been able to treat the overdose, but we did not have tools to treat the addiction or the dependency.

MANN: Rosenberg's organization has worked for years to convince emergency departments to improve addiction care, but he says reform has come slowly. He points to the fact that most emergency doctors still don't use buprenorphine. It's a drug proven to help people with opioid addiction avoid relapse.

ROSENBERG: Only one-third of patients get medications for opioid use disorder in the emergency department.

MANN: Experts say regulatory hurdles and stigma around people with drug use disorders have kept many emergency departments from improving their addiction care. Dr. Stephen Viel heads the emergency team at Halifax Medical Center in Daytona Beach, Fla.

STEPHEN VIEL: I think there is a lot of hesitancy because it's not what we've done. It's not what I've trained in, and it seems like somebody else should do it. But I think that what finally pushed emergency physicians out of their comfort zone to do something is just the number of people that we've seen die.

MANN: After a spate of overdose deaths three years ago, Viel changed his department using buprenorphine and also adding a new member to his team. Larry Brooks is a trained addiction counselor who now works with patients in the E.R. as soon as they're revived.

LARRY BROOKS: The overdose patients that come into an emergency room - they're at their most vulnerable. They're at their lowest point that they've ever experienced. You know, they've, you know, been dead or at least near-dead and brought back to life.

MANN: During the pandemic, Brooks' hospital has seen a new spike in drug cases. Brooks says it's made a big difference having an addiction program in place.

BROOKS: This is the best time for us as a health organization and a community as a whole to make an impact and say, look; somebody is here. You're not going to get kicked right back out the door and go into withdrawal and have to find something else and then be back here in two hours.

MANN: But experts say emergency department addiction programs like this are still rare. CDC researcher Kristin Holland says she hopes data from her study will convince more hospitals to change.

HOLLAND: Our takeaway from this is meeting people where they are. And if people are coming to the emergency department for these outcomes, that's where we need to meet them.

MANN: While deaths from COVID-19 have dropped from their peak, the CDC says fatal overdoses nationwide keep rising with more than 220 drug deaths every day.

Brian Mann, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUREL HALO'S "RAW SILK UNCUT WOOD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.