Deaths from drug overdose up 27% in Minnesota, COVID-19 restrictions to blame

On May 3rd, the Minnesota Department of Health reported that in 2020, Minnesota saw a total of 1,008 deaths from a drug overdose. This represents a 27 percent increase from 2019 when 792 individuals died due to the same cause. In 2020, every month of the year saw an increase in the number of overdose deaths compared to 2019.

This increase in drug-related death is an unfortunate reversal from the decline that we saw in 2018 and 2019. And the COVID-19 related lockdowns are heavily to blame for that.

The onset of a previously unknown virus that already had taken many lives across the world led many treatment and outreach resources to abruptly shut down, limiting access and support to those with substance use disorders.

“With COVID there’s this terrible storm about lack of access to treatment medications, housing and treatment facilities,” said Dr. Ryan Kelly, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Minnesota Medical School. “It made it more difficult to access those things and people died because of that.”

The young have paid a huge price

Generally, overdose deaths are more prevalent among the younger population. In 2020, for instance, individuals aged 25 to 34 had the highest number of overdose deaths and saw the highest jump in deaths from 2019.

On the flip side, the median age of death from COVID-19 was 83, meaning that younger individuals faced an extremely low risk of dying from the disease compared to older individuals. Indeed this is what we see when we compared COVID-19 and overdose deaths.

In 2020, 274 individuals aged 25-34 died from an overdose, while only 15 died from COVID-19. To put it in perspective, individuals aged 25-34 were 18 times more likely to die from overdose than from COVID-19. It is similar with individuals aged 35-44, although to a lesser extent –– individuals in this group were 4 times more likely to die from overdose than COVID-19 in 2020.

The biggest discrepancy in risk is among individuals aged 15-24 –– they were 40 times more likely to die from an overdose than from COVID-19. Generally, on average, individuals age 54 and younger had about 4 times the risk of dying from overdose than from COVID-19.

On the other hand, in 2020, about 2398 people 85 and over died from COVID-19 compared to just 10 from an overdose, meaning people in this age group were 240 times more likely to die from COVID-19 than from overdose. individuals aged 65-74, and 75-84 were about 20 and 200 times more likely to die from COVID-19, respectively.

Figure: Overdose and COVID-19 deaths by age group, 2020

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

In an ideal world, every policy we pass should be able to pass a cost-benefit test –– that is implement only when benefits outweigh costs. And to do that, analysis takes into account all the net benefit (benefit minus cost) that comes due to behavioral change from such policy compared to the counterfactual –– that is the world without such policy.

COVID-19 restrictions did not go through such a path. Instead, they were justified under the grounds that they would protect the masses from COVID-19. This has however proved costly, especially for groups of people that faced no substantial risk of serious illness or death from contracting COVID-19. The rise in overdose deaths is just one example of that.

From massive unemployment to loss in learning as well as increased deaths due to excessive alcoholism or drug abuse, COVID-19 restrictions have extended significant costs on young individuals. Young people have suffered heightened depression, stress, and anxiety and lost lifetime earnings due to heavily misguided policy.

We should not be surprised as more evidence becomes available just how much harm the COVID-19 restrictions caused while providing very little benefit. But needless to say, for young people, the cure has indeed been worse than the disease.