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Could jump in opioid overdoses be linked to COVID?



Early evidence suggests that opioid overdoses and deaths are on the rise this year, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse warned colleagues, although it’s not clear whether the coronavirus pandemic is responsible for the trend.

Dr. Nora D. Volkow

Dr. Nora D. Volkow

The picture is complicated since COVID-19 could have both positive and negative effects on substance use, Nora D. Volkow, MD, said in a plenary session at the virtual annual meeting of the College on Problems of Drug Dependence. However, she said, one thing is clear: The pandemic marks an opportunity to investigate new strategies and potentially reform treatment.

“We are being faced with an unknown world, and the lack of information curtails our capacity to implement interventions in the most effective way,” Dr. Volkow said. “There’s an urgency to obtain these data. All of you out there in the trenches have an opportunity to help gather this information in a way that can be integrated and deployed rapidly for us to guide practices and treatment.”

It’s too early to know for certain how the pandemic is affecting substance use in the United States, since statistics are sparse and COVID-19 is still relatively new. Still, local news reports have suggested overdose deaths have risen, Dr. Volkow said.

And, she noted, the Office of National Drug Control Policy’s Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program – which tracks overdoses nationwide – issued 191% more “spike alerts” from January to April this year, compared with the same time period in 2019. However, the spike alerts started going up in January, several weeks before mass numbers of COVID-19 cases began to be diagnosed.

Dr. Volkow noted the uncertainty about the numbers but said several factors could cause the pandemic to boost overdoses:

  • Stress and isolation. “My first fear was that overdoses are going to go up because the stress is actually extraordinarily difficult,” she said. “Social distancing is making it very difficult for individuals with substance use disorder or opioid use disorder to get the community support that keeps them from relapsing,” such as methadone clinics and syringe exchange programs.
  • Unwitnessed opioid overdoses. Social distancing could “lead to overdoses that nobody has observed, so no one can administer naloxone,” she said.
  • Treatment decisions affected by stigma. “Our health systems will be overburdened, and they have to make decisions about which patients to treat,” she said. Stigma could play a very important role in interfering with the treatment of individuals with substance use disorders.”
  • Drug-related vulnerabilities. On another front, she said, substance users may be especially vulnerable to the pandemic, because the drugs target multiple body systems that worsen COVID-19 outcomes. These include not only the lungs but also the cardiac and metabolic systems, she said.

For example, “if you have a long history of drug use, you’re going to be much more likely to have a pulmonary disease,” she said. “We know that pulmonary disease is a risk factor for getting COVID and for much worse outcomes.”

But the pandemic could also help in the fight against substance use. For one thing, she said, the pandemic could disrupt drug markets and make it harder for users to get illicit products.

In yet another complication, there is an ongoing debate over whether tobacco use could actually be protective against COVID-19. Research into nicotine patches as a treatment is in the works, she said.

What now? Dr. Volkow said one priority going forward should be an evaluation of virtual medicine. “We have virtual technologies that have enabled us to do telemedicine to provide mental health support and hotlines, as well as virtual support meetings,” she said. “These have proliferated and have served to a certain extent to compensate for some of the deficit from the erosion of the community support systems that exist.”

Now, she said, we should evaluate which interventions are effective, which patients they help, and the components that make them work.

There are other opportunities for useful investigations, she said. For example, researchers could examine the effects of COVID-related changes in policy, such as the federal government allowing more methadone users to take doses home and expanded telemedicine policy allowing more remote prescriptions.

“If we can show that the outcomes are as good or better [than before] then we may be able to transform these practices that make it so very difficult for so many patients to get access to treatment and to sustain treatment – but have not been questioned for years and years.”

Dr. Volkow reported no relevant disclosures.

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