How the Pandemic Has Changed the Fight Against Opioid Addiction

MastHead Outline
May 19, 2021

The global COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed life as we know it. Millions of people found themselves suddenly unemployed and struggling to make ends meet. Families are losing loved ones. Social distance and isolation have necessary over the past year to prevent viral spread. While the world has gradually adapted to the pandemic’s challenges, many sources point to an increase in opioid-related deaths.

The opioid crisis has been ongoing for years. Treatment providers and patient advocates continue to combat substance abuse disorders and reach out to the people harmed, but the pandemic has changed that fight.

How the Opioid Crisis Has Gotten Worse

In recent years, we’ve made positive progress in addressing the opioid crisis. For example, drug overdose deaths decreased by 4.1% from 2017 to 2018. Though there has been some promising change, there are signs the opioid crisis is worsening during the COVID-19 pandemic.

While we have focused the lion’s share of health resources and national attention on the extensive public health crisis caused by COVID-19, other significant health concerns, like the opioid crisis, continue despite the pandemic. The American Medical Association issued a report highlighting national, state and local data about increased deaths due to opioids. The AMA study found that more than 40 states have seen a rise in deaths related to opioids. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported the highest number of drug overdose deaths in one year — 81,000 deaths from May 2019 to May 2020. The CDC found that synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are playing a significant role in this increase.

The trend of increasing deaths highlights some of the challenges inherent to fighting opioid addiction and mortality. Barriers to treatment and services like sterile syringes and naloxone play a critical role in the continuing crisis.

Outreach to At-Risk Communities

The opioid epidemic within COVID-19 continues to be a challenge, but there are ways to continue the fight against opioid growth. Understanding risk factors can help health agencies direct resources to the areas and people who need them most. Factors like poverty, unemployment, low education levels, isolation and lack of mental health treatment are all risk factors for substance misuse. Urban and rural communities with large numbers of people living with these risk factors could have high levels of substance misuse.

Outreach to at-risk communities can help increase safer drug use and prevent harm, including overdose, HIV and hepatitis C. These programs can offer the following resources.

  • Sterile syringes: Providing a safe way for people to access sterile syringes can help encourage safer drug use and protect people from HIV and hepatitis C transmission.
  • Tools to prevent overdoses: Increasing access to naloxone and fentanyl testing can reduce overdoses and overdose-related deaths.
  • Education: Harm reduction organizations can establish a presence in at-risk communities to help people understand safe drug use and how to reach out for help.

During the pandemic, organizations should establish these programs in compliance with current safety measures, like social distancing, to keep people as safe as possible.

MAT and Telemedicine

Medication-assisted treatment is an integrative approach that combines medication and counseling to treat opioid addiction and other substance abuse disorders. In recent years, the number of people receiving treatment through MAT programs has increased significantly. However, opioid addiction and the pandemic present a double-pronged challenge. How can people get the help they need with limited in-person care options?

Government agencies and other organizations have expanded access to MAT via telemedicine. For example, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Drug Enforcement Agency have collaborated to offer providers clarity into how they can use virtual care to extend access to MAT. In specific clinical scenarios under current regulations, providers can treat patients with buprenorphine via telemedicine.

During the pandemic, the government has relaxed telemedicine regulations to improve access to care. This year, legislators are working to further extend telemedicine access to address the opioid epidemic. The Comprehensive Addiction and Recovery Act 2.0, which would increase funding and regulation to combat the opioid crisis, calls for further development of telemedicine access.

Telemedicine can help people receive MAT safely while COVID-19 remains a challenge and continue to grow treatment access to people beyond the pandemic.

How Care Is Adapting to the Pandemic

Opioid crisis growth during a time like the COVID-19 pandemic necessitates change. Organizations like the AMA and others have called for states to take action by allowing for easier access to treatment via telemedicine, removing administrative barriers preventing people from getting needed medication and counseling and implementing sterile syringe programs.

While it may take time for regulations to evolve, treatment facilities must adapt to the current environment to provide care to their patients.

  • Safety precautions: Like all health care providers, treatment programs have had to adopt new safety protocols to adhere to federal and state regulations during the pandemic. Pandemic protocols for treatment facilities can involve mask mandates, social distancing, patient screening, staggered staffing and access to hand sanitizer.
  • Take-home medication: The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration released updated guidance on take-home medication. States can approve stable patients undergoing treatment for opioid use disorder to receive take-home medication for 28 days. Patients can take their medications at home instead of coming for an in-person visit for each dose.
  • Telemedicine: Treatment programs can also leverage updated federal guidance to care for patients via telemedicine during the pandemic. For example, people can start receiving treatment with buprenorphine and naltrexone via a telemedicine appointment during the COVID-19 pandemic.

With an increased number of opioid deaths during the pandemic, treatment clinics may experience an uptick in patients. These facilities must remain flexible and adapt to the pandemic to treat patients in person and virtually.

How AppleGate Recovery Can Help

AppleGate Recovery provides a comprehensive approach to treating substance abuse disorders. Our doctors, nurses and counselors work together to help patients through our MAT program. Once you enroll in our program, our providers will offer different medication options and find the right one for you. Your treatment will also involve individual and group counseling. As you make progress, our team will maintain ongoing assessments based on your needs and progress.

Taking the first step toward recovery is something to be proud of, even if it feels intimidating at first. We are here to help during the pandemic and beyond. Learn more about how we treat opioid addiction and find a clinic near you.