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Alcohol can be blamed for the deaths of many people during a pandemic

As the world continues to recover from the effects of COVID-19, new research reveals that the pandemic's toll extended well beyond the disease itself. In its first year, from 2019 to 2020, alcohol-related deaths increased by 25% in America as most forms of normalcy, routine and access to treatment were disrupted or eradicated during this time.

The alcohol-related death rates soared in the wake of the pandemic, according to a study conducted by researchers with the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. The report found that for adults younger than 65 years old, alcohol-related deaths outnumbered COVID-19 deaths, 74,408 to 74,075. Additionally, the study found that the rate of alcohol-related deaths, including deaths from liver disease and accidents, outpaced the increase of death from all causes.

Alcohol consumption changed dramatically during the pandemic.

The fear, frustration and social isolation that arose during the pandemic led many to turn to alcohol for self-soothing. In March of 2020, national sales of alcohol rose 54% compared to the previous year and some states even allowed restaurants and other on-premises retailers to sell carry-out alcohol. As more individuals found themselves stuck at home with amplified stressors, minimal coping strategies and increased alcohol availability, the frequency of alcohol consumption increased by 14%, according to a study by JAMA. Increased alcohol consumption was a developing trend predating the pandemic, as were mental health struggles; however, the conditions of the pandemic made individuals more susceptible to substance abuse.

Although alcohol consumption rates have decreased since the pandemic, women and parents with young children have increased their consumption of alcohol. Women have disproportionately taken on the responsibility of child care, home management, and children’s education since the pandemic, so it reasons that women have increased their use of alcohol disproportionately. What may have started as an additional glass of wine with dinner turned into a 41% increase in the number of days women are drinking heavily or consuming 4 or more drinks within a short time. Those without children faced their own struggles as many experienced increased rates of isolation and loneliness, which are factors related to increased alcohol consumption.

Alcohol-related deaths have increased alongside drug overdoses.

The rate of alcohol-related deaths increased by 40.8% in conjunction with the number of Opioid overdoses involving alcohol, which increased by 59.2% in 2020. While rates of Opioid overdoses have been on the incline in recent years, the pandemic only exacerbated these trends due to several factors, including increased isolation and stress as well as a lack of treatment and support resources due to lockdown stipulations.

In addition, drug-related deaths reached a record high during the pandemic's first year, with over 100,000 Americans dying from overdoses within 12 months. This increase can be linked to the loss of access to treatment, increased mental health issues, and the availability of potentially lethal substances. The rise in overdose deaths was primarily due to the widespread use of Fentanyl, but stimulants like Methamphetamine, Cocaine, and natural and semi-synthetic Opioids (such as prescription pain medication) also factored into increased rates.

The loss of access to treatment has the potential to have serious health consequences.

While the COVID-19 virus shut down many public spaces, it also affected addiction treatment facilities. Addiction treatment clinics were forced to close for a period of time, leaving individuals in recovery without support and resources such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Health care workers struggled to tend to the growing number of patients who had been diagnosed with the virus and may have struggled with substance use disorder (SUD). While some individuals may have continued to seek treatment after their facility closed, others who were already struggling with sobriety may have abandoned attempts at sobriety if their addiction treatment facility was forced to shut down.

The disruption of recovery treatment during the pandemic could lead individuals to resort back to old coping mechanisms, including using substances. “Stress is the primary factor in relapse,” said Aaron White, senior scientific adviser at the NIAAA. “There is no question there was a big increase in self-reported stress, and big increases in anxiety and depression.” These increased levels of stress, uncertainty, and anxiety that the pandemic has instilled in people only increases the risk of relapse in those struggling with substance abuse.

As the third May of the pandemic approaches, it is unclear whether alcohol-related deaths will decrease as the pandemic wanes. While COVID-19 restrictions continue to loosen, many can now physically access treatment centers, attend support group meetings, and connect with loved ones; therefore researchers are hopeful they will see a reduction in alcohol-related deaths.

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