The immediate effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on the state of the opioid epidemic are clear. The increased isolation has led to heightened opioid usage and potential overdose.
Opioid Treatment Providers (OTPs) such as clinics and addiction treatment centers have begun to move recovery programs online. But the in-person bond of community is essential in recovery. The virtual counseling sessions and online medication administration can only work for so long.
Although the government has lessened restrictions on the provision of methadone and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder (OUD) patients, these medications are still unavailable to new patients without an in-personal consultation. This puts both the doctor and patients at risk for contracting COVID-19. As a result, it extends the time gap between patients’ critical moment of need and appointment availability.
Where Do We Go From Here?
Now we focus out attention to the future, when businesses reopen and we lift the stay-at-home order. When the smoke clears, where does this leave those suffering from opioid addiction? What about their treatment providers and the rest of the recovery industry?
Immediate Effects: Trauma and Overdose in OUD Patients
As consequences of COVID-19 become more apparent, the toll on OUD patients will surface as well. Many OUD patients have likely been unable to seek treatment, so an influx at clinics and treatment centers is likely. Furthermore, these patients will need a care plan to treat the effects of emotional trauma caused by the pandemic.
In April, SAMHSA reported an 891% call volume increase on their Disaster Distress Helpline, signifying the need for counseling services now and well into the future.
Although a comprehensive report on the number of opioid overdose deaths during the COVID-19 pandemic has not been released, cities in Pennsylvania and Tennessee (among others) have seen an undeniable rise when compared to previous months.
Likely to Follow: Strained Resources for OTPs
OTPs may experience a strain on resources and an influx of patients in the wake of COVID-19. Current guidelines for proper sanitization, patient-provider contact, and medication management are already in place and will need to be followed for months to come. In order for OTPs to have a smooth transition to a “new normal,” we need to consider next steps.
Clinics and treatment centers may be under-staffed due to COVID-19 and need to hire additional staff to accommodate these new patients. Issues may arise with scheduling, procuring medication, and treating all of those who need it. Even if the government offers more financial aid to behavioral health services, it still may not be enough. In effect, OTPs carefully allocating their resources and planning accordingly is paramount.
The ‘New Normal’: Increased Production of Controlled Substances
The DEA recently announced that due to the needs of COVID-19 patients, they are temporarily increasing the amount of controlled substances pharmaceuticals can manufacture. Although methadone is among those on the list, which is helpful to providers who supply it, fentanyl and morphine production are also increasing.
Fentanyl overdose deaths have skyrocketed in recent years, soaring above prescription opioids and heroin as the number one killer. While the effects of the production increase have yet to be seen, prescription drugs created the opioid epidemic. An increase in production puts more opioids in the hands of patients who medically need them. But it puts them in hands of those who abuse them.
According to the CDC, over 232,000 people died of opioid-related overdoses from 1999-2018. More people may become addicted to opioids if we continue to over-prescribe controlled substances. As a result, another wave of the opioid epidemic could surface.
Keeping a Close Watch on the State of the Opioid Epidemic
There are no relevant statistics to compare the aftermath of COVID-19 to the potential impact on OUD patients; a disaster on this scale is unprecedented. However, accurate reports of opioid usage and related deaths from the time COVID-19 started spreading in the U.S. could give insight into the pandemic’s effect on the opioid crisis. While the ultimate toll of the COVID-19 pandemic is being uncovered, so are preventative measures and new solutions to help OUD patients and their providers now and in the future.
Speranza Therapeutics is watching this situation closely. Subscribe to our newsletter for the latest news and resources.