RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) — When the COVID-19 pandemic began, stocking up on liquor and drinking those lockdowns away turned into something of a macabre punchline.

But it’s not funny anymore. From a public health perspective, it’s becoming a big problem.

The number of drinking people did at the start of the pandemic may come at a high cost in the near future, a study found.

An estimated 295,000 more Americans will wind up in hospitals because of a one-year increase in alcohol consumption during COVID, according to a study by experts from RTI International.

That adds up to $5.4 billion in hospital costs with $3 billion of that attributed to cirrhosis alone, the study found.

“These are large numbers, so there will definitely be an impact to society overall,” said Dr. Carolina Barbosa, a health economist at RTI International and the lead author of the study.

Researchers based those estimates on the nearly 26 million current U.S. drinkers with lifetime alcohol use disorder, and incorporated data from an RTI national survey into three simulations — one with no changes in drinking, one with the COVID-driven increases last for one year and one in which those increases last for five years.

“Because there’s a relationship between increased consumption and increasing risk of these alcohol-related diseases, we saw increases in these numbers for several diseases,” Barbosa said.

Those impacts to health and costs were more extreme for people older than 51 years old, women and Black people. 

“The patterns were already not good before COVID hit, and now it’s becoming worse,” Barbosa said.

As society has moved further from those days of stay-at-home orders and social distancing, the impact of pandemic drinking has become even clearer.

Back when bars were closed and everyone was stuck at home, liquor sales surged at North Carolina’s ABC stores.

During the first full month of Gov. Roy Cooper’s stay-at-home order in April 2020, sales at the state’s Alcoholic Beverage Commission stores were 35 percent higher than they were for the same month a year earlier.

A study published this summer by the North Carolina Medical Journal detailed how alcohol use in the state and across the country “increased dramatically as stay-at-home orders were instituted,” and so did what it called “related harms” including increased transplants for liver disease and emergency-room visits for alcohol withdrawal.

“The staggering effect of the pandemic on excessive alcohol use and the associated harms and deaths is undeniable,” wrote Dr. Sara McEwen, the executive director of the Governor’s Institute.

Previous studies by Barbosa and RTI found a 36 percent increase in alcohol consumption between the last pre-pandemic month (February 2020) and April 2020.

Consumption was then 39 percent higher in November 2020 than it was that February, an earlier study found.

“Some people are more susceptible to, once they start drinking to cope, they keep drinking to cope, and that develops into alcohol use disorder, and a longer problem, not just a short term, during the beginning of the pandemic thing,” Barbosa said.

But it raises an important question: What can people do about this now?

Barbosa says it should cause us to rethink our laws and policies as they relate to alcohol.

“Maybe we think of the potential impact (alcohol) can have. Also, better plan for other disasters — people do usually increase consumption to cope with emotional stress and sorrow and uncertainty,” Barbosa said. “Many people do not yet know that there’s a level of consumption that does not carry as much risk as different levels. … Maybe more information to the public in general, and prevention, and more screening.”