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Sharp Increase In Opioid Overdose Deaths Is A Symptom Of The COVID-19 Pandemic, Doctors Say

CHICAGO (CBS) -- For health experts a worst fear has come true -- alarming numbers out of Cook County show a sharp spike in overdose deaths from opioids. Those on the front lines of the crisis call it yet another indirect symptom of coronavirus and the effects of quarantine.

For those who handle the deceased within Cook County, the past few months have felt like a battle from all fronts.

"We're seeing an increase in number of deaths due to COVID," said Chief Medical Examiner Dr. Ponni Arunkumar. "We're also seeing an increase in the number of gun homicides recently, and now within all of this we're seeing an increase in case load because of opioid deaths."

The Cook County Medical Examiner's Office has been in close contact with public health departments over what seems to be a brewing crisis within another crisis.

"The news has been pretty grim. It's been striking how big a spike it is," said Dr. Steven Aks, directors of toxicology at Cook County Health.

When comparing this time last year to 2020 so far there is over a 50% increase in opioid overdose fatality numbers, just based on the cases that are confirmed. Opioid overdose deaths since the stay-at-home order this year are expected to jump. Over 570 cases are still pending. They estimate 70% to 80% of those will be classified as opioid overdoses, for a total of over 1,000.

"During a pandemic, with stay-at-home orders and social distancing, these are triggers for someone with substance abuse disorder," said Aks.

Dr. Kim Dennis, CEO and medical director of SunCloud Health, sees and hears the cries for help firsthand.

"Phones have been ringing off the hook with people looking for treatment options," Dennis said.

She works for SunCloud Health, which oversees treatment for addictions and disorders.

"I hear all the time, 'I really miss seeing people. I miss seeing my family. I lost my job. I can't see my therapist. I feel incredibly lonely. Nothing's going to get better,'" she said.

Telehealth and therapy is out there, but not all insurance covers that, and for Black Chicago neighborhoods with poor access to care and addition services, there is a disproportionate effect. In 2016 the majority of Cook County's fatal opioid overdoses were in White, non-Hispanic residents.

"If your throw a major public health disaster -- which the pandemic is -- on top of that, you're going to get a mess like we're in right now," Aks said.

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