COVID's impact on individuals with substance use disorder

For Employers
Feb 25, 2021
Covid substance abuse

The pandemic has been a time of extreme stress for many, but it has had a particularly egregious impact on individuals already vulnerable to substance misuse, as well as those who have previously struggled with addiction. Initially, patients being treated for substance use disorders (SUD) were reluctant to seek treatment for fear of contracting COVID-19 and becoming ill.

In addition, many treatment centers and recovery programs were forced to close or significantly scale back during shutdowns that were imposed in numerous cities and towns across the country. Many others struggled with the isolation that accompanied lockdowns and social distancing edicts. The combination of fear, social isolation and traumatic stress that ensued, along with the disruption of routines, compounded the problem of addiction and played a key role in the increase in substance use and risk of relapse for those in recovery.

Within a three-month period (March – May 2020), alcohol sales rose more than 25 percent. Researchers at the Department of Health and Human Services and Millennium Health recently published in JAMA that since the beginning of the national emergency in March there has been:
• 23% increase in urine samples taken from various healthcare and clinical settings testing positive for methamphetamine nationwide
• 19% Increase in samples testing positive for cocaine
• 67% increase in samples testing positive for fentanyl
• Suspected drug overdoses climbed 18% during this period

The coronavirus pandemic has created the perfect storm for the growth in substance use disorders by heightening the factors that usually fuel addiction. For example:
• Economic turndowns often initiate an increase in substance misuse, according to research.
• Stress is a common trigger for those at risk of relapse.

And, while the vast majority of Americans have been stressed as a result of COVID-19, those trying to recover from a SUD are particularly vulnerable because of a physiological hypersensitivity they have to stress – a side effect substances like opioids have on the central nervous system. Combined with social isolation, it can be a catalyst for reverting back to problem use.

The pandemic has also made substance misuse riskier than it was, as border closings hobbled illicit drug supply chains. To feed their need, those with an opioid use disorder turned to new dealers or unfamiliar drugs with unforeseen and dangerous consequences. The result: synthetic drugs and less common substances have increasingly been found during autopsies and noted in toxicology reports.

The social isolation created by the pandemic has also led to an increase in people overdosing alone, with no one around to call 911 or administer the opioid overdose antidote, naloxone. As shutdowns continued into late Spring/early Summer, the federal government responded by easing restrictions for virtual addiction treatment, which made it easier for treatment providers to retain patients and attract new ones. But, as vaccines start to become available for COVID-19 and with the pandemic’s end on the horizon, advocates are worried about resorting back to old rules that make it more difficult to get people into addiction treatment.

While no one knows for sure when the pandemic will be over, new research has indicated that, long after a vaccine is developed and years after the pandemic’s death toll is tallied, its impact on mental health and addiction will linger and continue to inflict damage if it isn’t addressed.

If you are looking for solutions to help solve the problem of addiction and substance use in your workforce, Quit Genius can help.

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