The COVID-19 pandemic is creating many obstacles for people in recovery and has triggered a rise in opioid overdoses. Nationwide, public health officials are reporting alarming spikes—more than 35 states have reported increases in opioid-related deaths. And, according to the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, overdoses across the country increased by 42% in May compared to the same time in 2019 (ODMAP, 2020).
Many factors seem to be contributing to this trend. While social isolation has become a mainstay in mitigating the spread of COVID-19, it takes a toll. Boredom, loss of connection, and increased levels of stress associated with the pandemic may trigger a recurrence of use for someone who is in recovery. Social distance guidelines also put people who are actively using drugs at risk, as they may be more likely to use alone—when there is no one around to help in case of an overdose.
Another factor driving overdoses is disruption of the drug supply which can lead people to seek out new sources and substances they are less familiar with which increases risk of overdose. Adding to these challenges, access to treatment may be diminished as some programs have reduced capacity to meet social distancing guidelines and mitigate funding cuts. People may also be wary of opting into care due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19.
Addressing an opioid epidemic within a global pandemic presents us with a unique situation that requires new, flexible interventions to meet our fast-changing landscape. The American Medical Association is encouraging providers to use telemedicine (AMA, 2020). Peer support groups have moved meetings online. New regulations by the Drug Enforcement Agency enable those with opioid use disorder to receive take home doses of methadone or receive a prescription for suboxone over the phone (SAMHSA, 2020).
For treatment providers, it is imperative to remain vigilant of the dangers, educate clients on risks and harm reduction strategies, and ensure access to services are as low-barrier as possible. A concerted effort must be made to activate networks and conduct outreach in communities to reach those most marginalized—especially Black communities and other communities of color experiencing the impacts of the twin pandemics at disproportionate rates.
If isolation is the poison driving overdoses, then connection is the antidote. Recovery Month is timely this year as we work together to navigate this new territory and re-commit to making recovery accessible for all. Even during a pandemic.
C4 Innovations supports providers in mental health, substance use disorder, and primary care services settings in responding to opioid use and supporting people seeking recovery. We are working to ensure equitable access to recovery supports during and post COVID-19. We also support organizations seeking to integrate and supervise peer workers, and live their values while advancing their mission. Email us to discuss how we can support your goals.