In the United States, a staggering 20 million people have a substance use disorder (SUD). Now, with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, what may happen next is entirely unpredictable. Without access to the facilities and other resources that are necessary to these SUD patients, researchers are concerned that this situation may be spiraling downhill.
In fact, studies have shown that drug and alcohol sales have already gone up a significant amount and are expected to continue increasing as the pandemic carries on. According to the Association of American Medical Colleges, ever since COVID-19 struck, non-prescribed fentanyl sales have risen over a whopping 30%, more than 20% for non-prescribed methamphetamine, and 10% for cocaine. But opioid addicts aren’t the only ones who are struggling; in fact, a study found that alcohol consumption has gone up 25%, and experts believe that these circumstances are primarily due to the coronavirus pandemic.
With quarantine in place, a considerable number of substance use disorder patients have ceased to visit rehabilitation facilities, and have stopped their treatment. Now, with no one to turn to for help, these patients are backsliding towards their old addictions.
John Kelly, PhD at the Recovery Research Institute at Massachusetts General Hospital, states, “Someone trying to recover from a substance use disorder has a physiological hypersensitivity to stress due to the effects of the substance on their central nervous system. They’re just more easily stressed than other people…chronically exposing the brain to drugs like opioids decreases a person’s ability to experience normal levels of rewards. Reduced enjoyment combined with stress and isolation can really take people back over the edge into active problem use.”
Patients have been turning to illegal drug dealers to try to cope with relapse, unintentionally worsening the situation. This month alone, there have been more than 60 overdose deaths per emergency department–a 1,000% increase compared to the previous years.
As a result, the American Medical Association and U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, as well as the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, have decided to take action and provide more buprenorphine and methadone to patients, so that they can cope with their relapses and potentially move forward. There has already been some positive feedback–one patient said, “I used to get two weeks’ worth of methadone, but now I get a whole month’s worth. I like being trusted instead of being treated like a little kid…”
Medical professionals and experts have stated that along with more trust comes a closer bond between therapists and patients, likely resulting in progress rather than setbacks. However, if patients continuously request for more and more medication, then they will be prescribed with daily doses like before.
“The opioid crisis hasn’t just gone away. It’s not solved. It’s been shoved into the background by the 24/7 COVID-19 news cycle…we need to focus on making it much easier for people to get the help they need and get it as quickly as possible,” states Kelly.
These unprecedented challenges set by the collision between the global pandemic and the opioid epidemic have most definitely taken a toll on our community’s health and safety. The government and healthcare providers are working hand in hand to try to solve these issues. As of now, researchers are still observing the possible changes in drug use and overdoses, but everything is expected to ultimately take a turn for the better, so healthcare experts encourage everyone to have a positive outlook on this situation.
Anyone who may need to talk to a counselor can contact the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration at 1-800-662-4357.