It sometimes seems like the coronavirus pandemic devoured every other problem, leaving nothing in its wake.

While it is hard to find a news story — whether health or politics, local government or education — that doesn’t have the word “COVID” in it somewhere, that isn’t what happened.

Instead of being a ravenous beast swallowing other issues whole as it dominates the landscape, the pandemic is more like Godzilla. It’s a gigantic monster that wanders around smashing through things and leaving wreckage behind.

It doesn’t push other problems out of the way and steal the limelight. It takes things that already were bad and makes them worse.

Like the opioid epidemic.

Remember just a year or so ago when the health crisis on everyone’s radar was the widespread abuse of opioids in both illegal forms like heroin and pirated fentanyl or the legal kind in the form of prescription drugs? When the number that staggered us was the number of people who died because of drug overdoses?

In 2018, that number of overdose deaths nationwide was 67,367, and 46,802 (69.5%) were opioid related. Pennsylvania was fourth in drug overdose deaths.

In recent years, the number of deaths from overdose had started to fall. In Westmoreland County, for example, after steady growth from 2011 to 2017, when numbers peaked at 193, there were decreases in 2018, when it dropped dramatically to 122 deaths, and in 2019, when it fell again to 115.

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}But experts warned this didn’t suggest addiction was down. Instead, it pointed toward the success of interventions against overdose like narcotic blocker naloxone, which was made more readily available.

An increase in the county’s overdose deaths in 2020 could support that. According to the coroner’s office, there are 102 confirmed overdose deaths and 19 that are suspected and pending toxicology results. If that is borne out, it would show a 5% increase, the first increase in a decade.

For some, this can be seen as a very predictable side effect of the pandemic and its restrictions, which isolate people who need support.

”Those in recovery really suffered,” said Colleen Hughes, director of the Westmoreland Drug and Alcohol Commission.

The commission has tried to keep the naloxone getting into the hands that need it via drive-thru events and mailing programs. That doesn’t solve the problem of a human connection to other people who could help with treating the addiction rather than responding to an overdose, which is harder from a distance.

The opioid crisis was already a seemingly unsurmountable challenge before the giant monster of the pandemic started to knock things over and make things worse. But if we could come up with two vaccines in one year, it seems like we could come up with some ideas to help mitigate the damage of overdoses.

— The Tribune-Review/TNS

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