September 24, 2020 5:44PM

A Tale of Two Scourges

Some observers of our policy toward the coronavirus pandemic criticize the tendency to focus on case numbers alone, when hospitalization rates and fatality rates are what really matter. And as we learn more about the COVID virus, mitigation and treatment is improving and fatalities are diminishing.

Similarly, the U.S. Department of Justice’s policy toward the overdose epidemic seems to be focused on arrests and drug interdictions, apparent in a DOJ press release today, itemizing the arrests of drug traffickers and seizures of illegal drugs that have resulted since “Operation SOS” began in July 2018. But it’s the overdose death rate that really matters.

The DOJ claims its operation is bringing down overdose deaths. There’s just one problem: overdoses were already rising in 2019 and early 2020, even before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, and are soaring since the start of the pandemic.

Public health experts and health care practitioners have learned, since the early days of the pandemic, how to mitigate spread with harm reduction measures such as wearing masks and social distancing, and how to better treat the infection. New therapeutics are being developed and, hopefully soon, a vaccine will help us reach “herd” or “community” immunity.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for those who prosecute the drug war. Public officials seem reluctant to mitigate the spread of death and disease with proven harm reduction measures like “needle exchange” and “safe injection site” programs, Medication Assisted Treatment, and over‐​the‐​counter distribution of the overdose antidote naloxone. And they seem disinterested in developing the overdose epidemic’s version of a vaccine: ending drug prohibition.

All public health experts agree that, eventually, the world’s population will recover as the coronavirus pandemic gradually disappears. Alas, the same cannot be said about the overdose epidemic.

Look for the DOJ to release another upbeat press release touting arrests and drug seizures next year. And look for overdoses to continue to mount as well.