Drinking deaths soared in the first year of COVID, CDC reports

The rate of Americans dying from alcohol-related causes skyrocketed by 26% during the first year of COVID-19 quarantines — the sharpest annual increase in 20 years, according to federal data released Friday.

The age-adjusted rate of alcohol-induced deaths jumped from 10.4 for every 100,000 people in 2019 to 13.1 in 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported.

The 26% spike was well above the annual increases of 7% or less reported from 2000 to 2018, according to a data brief from the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics.

Dr. Panagis Galiatsatos, a physician at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, said public officials must “be more conscious of unintentional consequences” arising from emergency health measures in the future. 

“Mental health was impacted during the pandemic, and excessive alcohol use is an outcome of mental health challenges,” Dr. Galiatsatos said.

From 2009 to 2020, the alcohol-induced death rate increased by 30% overall, according to the CDC.

Alcoholic liver disease was the most common cause of drinking-related deaths, followed by mental and behavioral disorders related to drinking.

From 2019 to 2020, the rate of deaths from alcoholic liver disease jumped 23%, and by 33% for mental and behavioral disorders due to alcohol use. The rate jumped 50% for alcohol-induced acute pancreatitis, a less common cause of death.

The alcohol-related death surge during COVID was partly related to the fact that alcohol-related liver disease weakens the immune system, according to experts.

“It is also the case that COVID-19 itself is more severe in those with alcoholic liver disease,” said Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security.

The CDC found that the alcohol-induced death rate increased with age, peaking in the 55–64 demographic for both men and women before declining again.

That suggests alcoholism had a harsher impact on older Americans who spent the first months of pandemic quarantines alone, according to mental health experts.

“The pandemic created the perfect storm where issues such as excessive fear, social isolation and a sense of helplessness gave rise to both anxiety and depression,” said Michael Adamse, a clinical psychologist in Boca Raton, Florida. “Many people resorted to alcohol to cope with their psychological reaction to the virus.”

Mr. Adamse said increased public service announcements, outreach from programs like Alcoholics Anonymous and alternative stress management strategies would help slow alcohol-related death rates.

Clinical psychologist Thomas Plante, a member of the American Psychological Association who teaches at Stanford and Santa Clara universities in California said mitigation can’t come soon enough.

“Tragically, we are living in very difficult times with a confluence of mental health and behavioral problems associated with stress, anxiety, depression, suicidality and substance abuse all around us. If we don’t turn this around, we’ll likely lose many more lives to alcohol as well as other stress-related behaviors.”

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