The claim: Heroin overdoses killed more people than the coronavirus in the United States on March 19
A Facebook user wrote a post in March saying that heroin-related overdoses killed more people in the United States than the new corona virus in one day this month.
The post, which was shared more than 75,000 times, appeared when many citizens and politicians criticized the government's handling of the pandemic by addressing it to other public health threats such as the flu or, in this case, the opioid crisis compared.
USA TODAY asked the author of the post for a comment, but received no response.
Activists and journalists have written about the complicated relationship between opioid addiction and the outbreak of the coronavirus. They cite how the emotional stress and economic volatility of a public health crisis could lead to vulnerable people misusing opioids.
NPR reported that in response, lawmakers suspended a federal law that "required patients to visit a doctor face to face before prescribing medication to help relieve symptoms of withdrawal," for which doctors have been fighting for years
However, there are still obstacles for addicts, including the inability to attend face-to-face meetings with peer support groups, persistent loneliness, an increased risk of contracting the virus, and a lack of qualified doctors to help addicts help.
What the data show
The post says: "Heroin killed more people than this (explosive) virus in the US yesterday, but you don't see that everywhere." It was released on March 20th, so "yesterday" in this case means March 19th.
On March 18, long before most expert models modeled the projected peak of the pandemic curve, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 97 deaths in the country. On March 19, the death toll rose to 150.
For comparison, the CDC estimates that an average of 130 Americans die from opioid overdoses on a daily basis and that a third of these deaths, according to their website, involve heroin as opposed to prescription or synthetic opioids.
Courtney Lenard, a CDC spokeswoman, said in an email that the death toll from heroin overdose cannot be tracked on a daily basis because "to confirm the involvement of a particular substance in an overdose , post-mortem toxicological tests may be required. "These tests may" take several weeks to several months ".
Another reason for the late reporting is that the National Center for Health Statistics, the branch of the CDC dedicated to the collection of health data, "needs approximately 12 months to review final mortality data at the end of the calendar year and prepare for publication to the public, "said Lenard.
On average, approximately 43 people die each day in the United States from an overdose of heroin, which is among the estimated 53 COVID-19 deaths on March 19.
Uncertainty in the count
Both data points, however, show a considerable degree of uncertainty.
Olga Khazan recently reported to The Atlantic that a research team discovered that many opioid overdoses were not detected due to suspected lack of medical examiners and variability between deaths in different areas.
Researchers at Rochester University, Elaine Hill and Andrew Boslett, found through their research on the subject that in more than 20 percent of the cases the type of drug could not be specified, possibly because an autopsy had not been performed. In other words, the person had died of a drug overdose, but the death certificate did not say which drug, ”wrote Khazan.
In addition, the latest CDC data is from 2018, so the daily average number of deaths may have changed since then. The center reported a 4.1% drop in opioid-related overdoses between 2017 and 2018.
The death toll of the coronavirus is also uncertain for several reasons.
If the CDC updates its number of COVID-19 deaths daily, there is usually a delay of one to two weeks, a CDC spokesman told the New York Times. Although the counts are faster at the state level, the lack of timely reporting at the federal level leaves a gap in the experts' understanding of the situation.
Reporting at the state level is also incorrect. The New York Times reported that "the enumeration is due to inconsistent protocols, limited resources, and a patchwork of decision-making from one state or county to another."
For example, forensic doctors in rural communities have difficulty obtaining adequate test supplies, and many nurses and doctors have reported people who they suspect were dying before the test.
A county in Idaho needs a positive test to officially attribute the virus to the cause of death. However, in Alabama, the state health agency requires a doctor to check a person's medical records to determine if the virus was actually the main cause of death, "the Times reported.
The widespread lack of testing means that the virus mortality rate, the number of deaths from the number of confirmed cases, remains an unknown statistic.
The lack of accurate data on the number of deaths from both crises in the area of public health affects the ability of experts to implement solutions appropriately.
Our Decision: More Information Required
Due to the lack of conclusive and comprehensive data on the number of deaths caused by both heroin overdoses and the evolving nature of the coronavirus pandemic, it is almost impossible to determine the actual death toll in a day's daily basis. For this reason, more information would be needed to determine the validity of the claim.
Our fact-checking sources:
Facebook post, March 20, 2020
The Washington Post, There is a more accurate way to compare coronavirus deaths with the May 2, 2020 flu
The Washington Post, How the Corona Virus Creates Other Threats to Addicts, May 1, 2020
NPR, coronavirus crisis spurs access to online treatment for opioid addiction, May 5, 2020
Harvard Health Blog, "A Story of Two Epidemics: When COVID-19 and Opioid Addiction Collide," April 20, 2020
The Wayback Machine, "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), U.S. Cases", March 19, 2020
The Wayback Machine, "Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19), U.S. Cases", March 20, 2020
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, "America's Drug Overdose Epidemic: Action Data"
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Heroin Overdose Data”
The Atlantic, "The opioid epidemic could be far worse than expected", February 27, 2020
The New York Times, Official Counts, underestimates the U.S. coronavirus death rate of April 5, 2020
Email interview, Courtney Lenard, senior press officer, CDC Office for Health Communication and Science, May 7, 2020