One doctor’s fight against an overlooked and growing epidemic.

    Nov 21, 2020


Unsplash. Matthew T Rader.

The original rationale for COVID-19 lockdowns was to “flatten the curve”; a strategy designed by public health and safety officials to prevent U.S. hospitals from becoming overwhelmed. As the epidemic continued, lockdowns and social distancing have been encouraged, sometimes mandated, in order to continue saving lives by keeping individuals at home, isolated from others.

Health experts have repeatedly assured the public that taking these measures is helping slow the spread of the virus, but what if these measures are causing another overlooked epidemic?

The toll of the COVID-19 pandemic and the associated “mitigation activities, including the impact of physical distancing and stay-at-home orders” have contributed to a rise in mental health and substance abuse problems, the CDC acknowledged back in June.

“Younger adults, racial/ethnic minorities, essential workers, and unpaid adult caregivers reported having experienced disproportionately worse mental health outcomes, increased substance use, and elevated suicidal ideation,” the statement from the CDC reads.

A new study done by Quest Diagnostics Health Trends, a nationwide diagnostic testing and information services company, indicates the misuse of fentanyl, heroin and non-prescribed opioids are on the rise, potentially due to the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on healthcare access and support for individuals most at-risk for substance use disorder.

The study compared positive test rates for Jan. 1, 2019-March 14,2020 and March 15-May 16, 2020 (during the onset of the COVID-19 outbreak). Among individuals tested, the drug positivity rate increased 35% for non-prescribed fentanyl and 44% for heroin during the pandemic compared to the period prior to the pandemic. Non-prescribed opioids increased by 10%.

It is becoming increasingly clear to public health experts that these lockdowns aren’t without dangers. One of these dangers is the looming crisis of mental health and drug addiction we will have to face in the years to come as a result of the measures we have taken to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Aiman Hamdan, a heart-care and cardiology services professional, specializes in complex cardiovascular conditions such as aortic aneurysms, cardiomyopathy, congenital heart failure, heart tumors, hypertension, and pulmonary valve disease. Dr. Hamdan has spent most of his life treating the hearts and changing the lives of his patients. Now, Dr. Hamdan is tackling a growing epidemic that not only takes the hearts of victims, but the hearts of their families as well.

As part of his unwavering commitment to lowering substance use rates throughout the nation, Dr. Hamdan has created a comprehensive substance abuse prevention program engaging schools, communities, and most importantly, families. His program encompasses “helpful hints for parents on how to tackle the problem, and, how to be more aware of the issue and its deadly consequences”. While Hamdan notes that his program is “not intended by any means to replace any scientific or medical references”, he maintains that some efforts must be made to help families gripped in the spiraling crisis.

“I recognize and greatly appreciate the important work of drug abuse programs and rehabilitation centers. When Americans suffer from substance abuse, they are often sent by caring family members to health care professionals. Families trust that their loved ones are in the hands of compassionate and experienced experts who are truly trying to make a difference,” Dr. Hamdan said. “My program is focused on educating families and friends, because Americans know there is no one who cares for their own loved ones as strongly as they do.”

Dr. Hamdan’s program focuses on parents, families, and caregivers who often suffer the depredations and horrors of substance abuse along with their addicted loved one. The program includes vital information on the warning signs and risks of substance abuse which can be utilized by families torn apart by drug addiction. Tackling substance abuse before the situations become dire and removing the stigma behind addiction is critical to treating individuals for who the really are- victims of a drug crisis that is gripping this nation ever more firmly in the wake of mass Covid-19 isolation.

Hamdan’s checklist of helpful hints to parents includes, but is not limited to: Hugging children after they socialize with friends to recognize any smells of alcohol, cigarettes, or other drugs; looking closely into eyes to recognize small pupils, which is a side effect of marijuana use, and dilated pupils, which are a sign of opiate use; monitoring their child’s behavior and driving, and taking extra efforts to investigate, as not to “confuse drug behavior changes with teenager behavior changes.”

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented new challenges for traditional drug abuse prevention programs, especially in the case of opioid misuse. According to NPR, one of the most dangerous drugs to combine with COVID-19 is fentanyl. For someone suffering with COVID-19, the addition of fentanyl has been described as a “nightmare” combination.

Fentanyl is a synthetic opiate analgesic that can be ingested, dissolved in the mouth, absorbed through the skin, smoked, or injected. Fentanyl can have a particularly dangerous effect on teenagers, as it impacts the body’s opiate receptors for pain and emotions.

Side effects of fentanyl use include drowsiness, respiratory depression/arrest, confusion, nausea, unconsciousness, tolerance and addiction. The abuse of the drug can cause immune system depression, delusions, hallucinations, severe constipation, swollen extremities, paranoia, seizures, bowel obstruction/perforation and death.

In addition to educating families and communities on the dangers of fentanyl, Hamdan’s program also includes information about other types of substance abuse: Cocaine, heroin, LSD, Percocet, methamphetamines, alcohol, mushrooms, etc., and the side effects that usage or abuse of these substances may produce.

Dr. Hamdan’s program even aims to tackle nicotine usage, which has skyrocketed amongst middle school and high school students via the novel new method of vaping. Vaping is very appealing to young people, with formulated flavors such as apple pie and watermelon and celebrities sporting chic vaping cartridges and accessories.

Dr. Hamdan was formerly President of the New Jersey Chapter of Arab American physicians. The dedicated cardiologist possesses nearly three decades of experience in the medical field, is certified by the American Board of Internal Medicine in interventional cardiology and the American Board of Vascular Medicine in vascular and endovascular medicine.

He has been a member of various professional organizations, such as the American Medical Association (AMA), whose foundation recently issued plans to address disparities in medical treatment provided to the LGBTQ community and has been recognized by former U.S. Presidents George W. Bush, Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

As part of his continuing efforts to tackle rampant drug abuse problems in America, Dr. Hamdan’s program aims to improve the lives of those affected by drug abuse through the evidence-based resources of prevention, treatment, support, and recovery.

(Contributing journalist, Allegra Nokaj) (Contributing writer, Brooke Bell)