ROCHESTER, Minn. — Rising alcohol consumption combined with soaring unemployment and isolation under COVID-19 lockdowns has been a health concern throughout the pandemic, and new data suggest those concerns were valid.
In 2020 nearly one thousand Minnesotans died from fully alcohol related causes — chronic liver disease or acute alcohol poisoning — according to new data from the Minnesota Department of Health.
“The deaths of so many Minnesotans from alcohol is tragic and preventable,” said Minnesota Commissioner of Health Jan Malcolm in a statement.
“Sadly, the pandemic has amplified some of the root causes of substance use and substance use disorders, such as social isolation, job loss and lack of access to treatment," Malcolm said. "In response, we need to strengthen overall opportunities in our communities for connectedness and financial security as well as specific evidence-based community strategies to reduce excessive alcohol use.”
The state saw alcohol deaths on pace with 2019 until June, when they accelerated, an uptick "thought to be due in part to factors associated with the COVID-19 pandemic."
“In 2020, we saw that after May, alcohol-related deaths continued to stay elevated and 171 more Minnesotans died in 2020 compared to 2019, which is a larger jump than the trend prior to the pandemic,” said Kari Gloppen, MDH alcohol epidemiologist in a statement.
The health department believes the 992 deaths fully due to alcohol is an undercount, moreover, given the many deaths recorded last year for which alcohol was one of many causes of death.
The statement said that alcohol-attributable deaths are "only the tip of the iceberg" when measuring the cost of excessive alcohol use.
Besides premature death, excessive drinking is linked to chronic diseases, including cancer, injuries and violence, crime, property damage, and lost productivity. In the body, excessive drinking affects the brain, heart, liver, digestive system and immune system.
The Community Federal Services Task Force lists a variety of public health policy initiatives that could stem the toll of drinking.
These include increasing the price of alcohol, regulating the number and concentration of places that sell alcohol, better enforcement of laws prohibiting alcohol sales to minors, and e-screening and brief intervention to reduce excessive alcohol use.
Such screening and brief intervention programs can be integrated into clinic and emergency department services, at workplaces or in other community settings, using mobile devices or computers.