Federal and state governments have spent years trying to contain an opioid epidemic that has killed tens of thousands of people every year nationwide — an epidemic caused by the irresponsible marketing of drug companies combined with a lack of resources for more specialized pain therapies in rural areas.
But now, as the coronavirus pandemic is surging, doctors are facing the opposite problem, reported Politico on Friday: There are not enough opioids available to relieve the suffering of COVID-19 patients hooked up to ventilators.
"Low stocks of opioids in coronavirus hot spots — which have become dire enough for doctors to request that states divert death row supplies to hospitals instead — are compounded by the looming shortages of a range of other drugs, from antibiotics to inhalers, as hospitals struggle to cope with a massive wave of coronavirus patients," wrote Sarah Owermohle. "The growing scarcity of these life-saving medications is just a hint of things to come as the U.S. outbreak progresses, said one senior official at the Department of Health and Human Services. Reports from countries like Italy that are farther along in their outbreaks suggest that blood clots and other complications in severely ill patients could spark overwhelming demand for whole classes of drugs."
The drug crackdown is not the only problem, though. The United States has critical problems throughout the drug supply chain that have left hospitals unprepared for the surge of health care demand.
"While the pandemic is unprecedented, such shortages are not. Health experts say the U.S. government has been slow to strengthen the drug supply chain, despite recent painful reminders of its vulnerabilities," wrote Owermohle. "Production at several major pharmaceutical factories in Puerto Rico was disrupted for months in 2017 after Hurricane Maria tore across the island — leaving hospitals without a reliable supply of saline IV bags and other infused fluids. Less than a year later, manufacturing problems at several other U.S. plants caused nationwide shortages of opioids used in surgeries and end-of-life care."
"Bouts of scarcity are endemic to the U.S. drug supply chain, which affords little transparency about where drugs are made and stocks fluctuate due to production costs and small profits," continued the report. "In October, a FDA drug shortage task force created after Hurricane Maria delivered a plan for addressing those risks. But few of its recommendations have been enacted. Two were only authorized weeks ago in the stimulus package signed in late March."
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