The United States passed grim milestone after grim milestone over the course of the coronavirus pandemic. People were forced to live in the shadows, exist in isolation and were oftentimes driven to the brink of despair.
As a result, our nation passed a different, albeit equally heartbreaking milestone: a record number of Americans dying as a result of a drug overdose.
Between April 2020 and April 2021, drugs – mostly synthetic opioids such as fentanyl – took the lives of more than 100,000 of our sons and daughters, loved ones and neighbors, community members and friends. America’s other epidemic – our addiction epidemic – is not confined to a particular subset of our population. No, the plague of drug overdose deaths does not discriminate.
It’s wealthy and poor. It’s Black and white. It’s rural and urban. It’s north, south, east and west.
It’s red and it’s blue.
Communities torn apart
In my home state of West Virginia, we were one of the hardest-hit places in the country, again, as we saw a more than 60% increase in lives lost to drugs – the most ever during a 12-month period.
Unfortunately, I didn’t have to wait for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to release those statistics to understand the situation we are in. We know it well enough. Our communities have been torn apart, begun to heal and then broken again. Our children’s high school reunions aren’t as crowded as they should be.
How do we to start to climb our way out of it? How do we make a dent in a crisis that has severely deteriorated over the past 19 months?
We certainly need to continue investing in drug prevention efforts. We must stop drug use before it starts, especially among children, by encouraging the use of alternatives to opioids and supporting local programs tailored for each city, town and rural community, which have proved to show signs of success.
Research is key, too. I recently hosted Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse at the National Institutes of Health, at West Virginia University in Morgantown. Not only did we witness the innovative work being done to curb addiction, but we also brought together national leaders with those working on the ground to share ideas that will one day save lives.
We must also support those struggling with the disease of addiction by increasing access to treatment options. The road to recovery is possible, and for those on that journey, every day is critical and we can be with them every step of the way.
Stopping the suffering
But right now, what’s killing people and fueling this crisis are one-and-done fentanyl overdoses.
Of the 100,306 deaths, 75,673 – more than three-fourths – were caused by opioids, primarily fentanyl. Whether you are a high school kid at a party who gives in to peer pressure, or you just got out of a treatment center with a weakened tolerance and relapse, one time is all it takes.
The reality is we have to cut off the supply of deadly fentanyl. We know most of it comes from outside the United States, and we know it comes in through our southern border.
This reality means securing our border, and it has to be part of the solution. Completing border wall projects in strategic places would allow border patrol agents to focus their resources on points of entry and other vulnerable areas.
It isn’t the silver bullet to solving the drug crisis, but without physical barriers, technology and devoted manpower at our southern border, deadly drugs will continue to flow into our country and onto our streets.
Doing all of these things – investing in drug prevention efforts and research, increasing access to care for those who need treatment or are in recovery, and securing our border – we can begin to turn the tide and change the trajectory the coronavirus put us on.
Let’s redouble our efforts – together. And let's do it quickly.
Recently, new opioids, even more powerful than fentanyl, have popped up on the streets of Washington, D.C.
At the same time, it’s important we continue talking about this crisis, and keep it in the spotlight. Let’s hear more about the consequences of drug addiction in the news media. Let’s hear more about solutions from my fellow lawmakers on Capitol Hill. Let’s hear more from this president about why it should be a priority.
Because back home, we’re sure hearing about it, and seeing it and experiencing it, every single day.
Shelley Moore Capito is a U.S. senator from West Virginia and the first female senator from the Mountain State.
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