Coronavirus could worsen opioid epidemic as unemployment and pandemic stress may fuel addiction: Experts

The pandemic has forced clinics to shut down and virtual counseling services are of little help; also, these patients have higher chances of dying from Covid-19


                            Coronavirus could worsen opioid epidemic as unemployment and pandemic stress may fuel addiction: Experts
(Getty Images)

The coronavirus pandemic in the US is clashing with an older crisis — the opioid epidemic. Caught in this mess are Americans battling opioid addiction.

Covid-19 and opioid addiction can impact and worsen each other, Dr Peter Grinspoon, primary care doctor in Massachusetts, wrote in a blog post. "Two great epidemics of our generation are intersecting in ways that are additively deadly," he added.

Before the new coronavirus emerged out of Wuhan and ignited a pandemic, the US was trying to actively stem the opioid crisis that has affected more than 2M people. From July 2018 to July 2019, 67,410 died because of drug overdoses. But one report pointed out that the number could be 28% higher than reported due to incomplete death records.

Now, the pandemic is blocking measures meant to help opioid patients. The threat has forced clinics to shut down, and counseling services have turned virtual. Not to mention, these patients have higher chances of dying from Covid-19.

According to National Institute on Drug Abuse, opioids can slow down breathing and reduce oxygen levels in the blood, both of which can worsen Covid-19.

Opioid cases are likely to go up

What is worse, the pandemic can drive cases of drug misuse. "This changing, very strange world that we are living through could serve as a trigger for people to return to drug use. And that brings great potential for overdose with it," Daliah Heller, director of drug use initiatives at the public health organization Vital Strategies, told CNN.

 Opioids can slow down breathing and reduce oxygen levels in the blood, both of which can worsen Covid-19 (Getty Images)

Nora Volkow, director of National Institute on Drug Abuse, predicts that some communities will "absolutely" see an uptick in overdoses.

In fact, local officials are reporting a spike in overdose calls and deaths. For example, Ohio's Franklin County has seen a 50% increase in fatal overdoses from January to April 15. Sixty-two people died of overdoses in April alone, according to Franklin County Coroner, Dr Anahi Ortiz. 

"Please keep that Narcan on hand, use fentanyl test strips, and call 911 for an overdose. Families and friends check on your loved ones who use frequently, consider Thursday, Friday and Saturday to check-in and talk," she wrote in a  Facebook post.

Dr Ortiz added that Covid-19 is exposing our vulnerabilities and shortcomings of our addiction services.

Stress could drive addiction rates

The pandemic has resulted in job losses. More than 33M Americans have filed for unemployment so far. This, in turn, could fuel opioid misuse, according to the Department of Health and Human Services. Other factors that could push people into addiction are social distancing and isolation.

Social distancing, which is needed to stop the virus, is proving to be a deterrent for addiction treatment. "Our government, in response, has relaxed regulations so that, in theory, clinics can give 14-day or even 28-day supplies to 'stable' patients, so that they don’t have to wait in line and can adhere to social distancing for safety. Unfortunately, there are countless stories of patients not being granted this privilege, including at least one of my patients," Dr Grinspoon wrote.

Besides, virtual services are not as powerful as face-to-face meetings. Isolation can result in people seeking some sort of relief, like starting to take drugs, Dr Volkow told CNN. She added that understanding the true effects of Covid-19 on people struggling with opioid use disorders could take a while.

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