The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has affected the scope of substance abuse and addiction treatment in several ways. While the capacity of some treatment programs has been limited, many addiction centers have adapted and remain open.
The United States has been the site of significant social and economic fallout during the course of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, officially declared in March of 2020.
The last year has been marked by high rates of unemployment, stress, economic insecurity, and uncertainty. And for people with mental health and substance use disorders, the consequences of the pandemic have been felt deeply.
As vaccines for people in the United States become more widely available, understanding the impact of the pandemic on substance abuse and treatment remains important for determining the next steps and helping those in need of care.
Here, we have described some of the ways that the coronavirus pandemic has affected the lives of people with substance use disorders over the past year.
Increased Risk For COVID-19
Early on in the pandemic, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) shared concerns of people with substance use disorders being at elevated risk for contracting COVID-19 and experiencing severe symptoms.
In October, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) shared the following:
• People with substance use disorders made up 15.6% of COVID-19 patients in U.S. hospitals, according to electronic health record data.
• People with opioid use disorder were 10 times more likely to have COVID-19 compared to those without a recent SUD diagnosis.
• People addicted to or dependent on alcohol, cocaine, and tobacco were also over represented in patients who had been hospitalized for COVID-19.
Many drugs, when misused, are known to have negative effects on the immune system, the lungs, and respiratory health—all of which can make the body more vulnerable to severe symptoms of COVID-19.
Furthermore, disrupted access to harm-reduction services, healthcare, and housing assistance has been another concern for people addicted to drugs or alcohol during COVID-19.
Changes In Drug Supply And Access
Worldwide, the pandemic has disrupted the production and distribution of several common drugs of abuse, including cocaine, heroin, and prescription drugs.
Changes in drug supply and distribution can affect:
• the price of drugs
• the use of certain drugs over others
• where people buy drugs
In some countries, these disruptions have affected the street price of drugs. Shortages can also prompt people to switch substances—for example, switching from heroin to highly potent synthetic opioids.
Unemployment And Economic Insecurity
During the pandemic, the national unemployment rate in the United States reached the highest level recorded since data collection began in 1948, at 15% unemployment last April.
Millions of people have experienced job loss, cuts in work hours, or have been unable to continue their previous jobs due to concerns about catching COVID-19 or bringing it home to vulnerable loved ones.
Part-time workers, workers without a college degree, and workers in the leisure and hospitality industries have been especially hard-hit, according to data from the Congressional Research Service.
Losing access to a stable income, employment benefits, and overall economic stability can lead to the use of unsupported coping mechanisms, like drinking and drug use.
Drugs and alcohol can often be used to numb, avoid confronting painful situations, and to cope with major sources of stress, sadness, or anxiety.
Self-Quarantine And Isolation
Social support is often crucial to the recovery of people with substance use disorders. While an effective precaution, avoiding close proximity to others during the pandemic has disrupted ties to crucial sources of support: friends, family, peer support networks.