April 20, 2020

What does COVID-19 mean for Addiction?

Elephant’s Continually updating Coronavirus Diary. ~ Waylon


Amid all the buzz about COVID-19, few have paused to wonder what this means for America’s other epidemic: drug addiction.

It’s almost a given that it won’t help and will make a life for those struggling with substance dependence even harder.

But what does that look like?

No one can say, for sure, until we get to that point. The truth is, it’s already affecting many people in some ways that we’ve never had to consider.

Everyone can probably agree that these are trying times, fraught with stress and anxiety. Self-isolation and social distancing can create anything from boredom to paranoia. But with addiction, these feelings often compel the person to reach for substances to cope. A likely consequence of this is a furthering of COVID-19 transmission, as drug users will venture out to obtain more drugs. But it could mean more overdose deaths, too.

Someone considering getting help in the form of treatment may no longer feel it’s safe. All the precautions point away from group settings, which is the basis for nearly all treatment models. Places like jails, nursing homes, and treatment facilities could be hotbeds for the rapid spread of the virus, making them unsafe during these times. A result may be the person resigning to the idea of continuing to use drugs for the foreseeable future.

Should the person overdose, or need some other medical care related to their substance abuse, going to a hospital has become a much riskier proposition. Not only are they more likely to be exposed to the virus, but they’d also be less likely to receive adequate treatment.

In areas hard hit by COVID-19, hospitals have become overwhelmed and lack the space and equipment necessary to handle all the viral patients. Other patients who have medical need suffer as well. There have been situations reported where there haven’t been enough ventilators, and some unfortunate doctors must make decisions on which patient will get the last one. This potential choice doesn’t bode well for anyone experiencing respiratory failure due to drug overdose.

Anyone who is currently in treatment for opioid addiction who relies on medications like methadone and Suboxone may soon find themselves in peril, as the clinics that distribute these medications are the antithesis of social distancing. One option is to allow them all to take home an abundant supply of their medicines so they can isolate during this time, but that opens the door to potential abuse and diversion of the drugs and possibly more overdoses.

The unfortunate population of drug users who are homeless, or find themselves in halfway houses or group homes, are in a similar predicament. If they had other resources, they likely wouldn’t stay there. But most of them don’t have other options, so they are at a higher risk of infection.

So, what is there to do? Modern America has never been faced with this problem before, so we may have to get creative as we go. In many healthcare fields, technology has advanced to the degree that patients can visit with doctors and other practitioners via video calls, and classes can be attended remotely. While insurance carriers only cover this for specific treatments, perhaps an exception should be made for addiction treatment during this time.

We need to adapt quickly and initiate solutions rather than wait and see what happens. With this virus, proactive measures are much more effective.

It’s not hard to see where this is going, and while some may not be worried about what happens to a drug addict, they should keep in mind that they never know who may pass COVID-19 to them.

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