Many social workers have expressed the strain that COVID is putting on them as they struggle to battle another of North America’s fatal epidemics: opioid addiction. 

In the U.S. and Canada, opioid deaths have increased over the course of the pandemic. According to the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), from the period of January 2020 to January 2021, the nation saw an average increase in opioid overdose deaths of 30.8% compared to the year previous.

Some states, like Vermont, saw increases as high as 85%. These increases have many explanations. Most of them stem from reduced bandwidth of medical professionals to simultaneously battling opioid addiction and a national pandemic that has claimed over 738,000 lives as of October 26.

For social workers, dealing with opioid overdoses can be extremely stressful and even traumatic. As Ruth Cameron, executive director of the Ontario, CA-based AIDS Committee of Cambridge, Kitchener, Waterloo and Area told CTV News, “When you have to try to reverse an overdose, who is not just a client to you, is not just a number, but someone you know, it's going to have an impact.”

Part of a social worker’s duties is to build a trusting relationship between themselves and the person whose case they are working. With every overdose, another friend passes away, according to Simone Morrison of Sanguen Health Centre.

When talking about the difficulty of these overdoses, she told CTV, “These are people that matter. They are people in our community, they are people we know, develop relationships with, we know their struggles and celebrate their triumphs.”

As social workers worry about their charges and families, experts are predicting a high rate of burnout and people leaving the field at a time when they are most needed. Rachelle Deveraux, chief executive officer of the Guelph Community Health Centre Ontario, notes that even if these burnt-out employees don’t leave the industry, their ability to connect or give meaningful support could be permanently impacted. 

Deveraux stated, “The inability to sleep, shifts in mood, inability to get out of bed, . . . It leads to the inability to get people care in good time and meet their demands.”

Deveraux and other care advocates are campaigning for increased mental health support for care workers in addition to paid sick leave and spaces in the care facilities where care workers can be safe and relax. As the pandemic and opioid epidemic continue to impact the U.S. and Canada, the health and wellness of those fighting on the frontlines becomes a topic of increasing concern.