AS COVID-19 deaths have soared to 235,000 in the United States, the loss of life due to drug overdoses has been largely overlooked.

That’s a costly mistake the nation cannot afford to make.

According to the American Medical Association, nearly 72,000 Americans died of drug overdoses in 2019 and the numbers are on track to be even higher in 2020.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 13% of Americans have used drugs —either legal or illegal — to deal with stress brought on by COVID-19. CDC studies indicate that about 40 percent of U.S. residents are battling issues related to drug use or mental illness.

Suicide rates have been climbing. One CDC survey indicates that 25% of U.S. respondents between the ages of 18 and 24 have considered suicide in the previous month.

A recent Axios-Ipsos poll and research from the Journal of Applied Psychology have found declines in psychological well-being due to the pandemic. These declines cut across socio-economic lines.

Researchers analyzed data from two surveys of more than 1,100 adults. The first survey was conducted in March and April 2019 and the respondents were surveyed again in April 2020. By going back on a person-by-person basis the researchers were able to track the effects of the pandemic.

They found that most people have been more isolated since the coronavirus led to the first major business shutdowns in March. Many people have faced the stress of a job loss or interruption. Others have faced the traumatic loss of loved ones who contracted the virus. Routines have been disrupted in many other ways, with funerals, weddings and other gatherings affected by the pandemic.

In Missouri, the disruptions of COVID-19 and a hard-fought election have diverted attention from the state’s lack of a prescription drug monitoring program. Although other units of government are allowed to operate their own monitoring systems, many counties have neither the finances nor technological infrastructure to create meaningful barriers to drug abuse.

For the past seven years, Missouri has been the only state without its own drug monitoring program. Based on drug arrests, overdose cases, opioid prescriptions and other data, Missouri now ranks third in the nation for those problems.

Clearly the status quo is not working.

A long-time opponent of the monitoring system is no longer in state government. “Privacy concerns” that were used to stall legislation in past years can be shown to be false by looking at the track record in 49 other states where the systems have worked well.

State lawmakers have a chance to save lives in 2021 by passing a state prescription drug monitoring program.

On the national stage, whoever is president, should work with Congress to continue efforts to halt the overuse of opioids and other pain relievers. Laws also should focus more on drug treatment programs and less on jail terms.

A federal focus on mental health services also is long overdue.

U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt of Missouri has been a champion of mental health systems, urging his colleagues in Congress and state officials to invest more in treatments that keep mentally ill people out of prisons.

We hope Blunt’s efforts continue and that state officials join the partnership.

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