COVID and Opioid Overdose Deaths





People in the U.S. are dying from more than just COVID. Opioid-related deaths have increased in nearly forty states this year, coinciding with the COVID pandemic. According to a recent New York Times article, opioid overdose deaths showed a slight drop in 2018, went up again somewhat in 2019, but in 2020 they have risen by around 13%. [3]

The article says the drop in opioid-related overdose death in 2018 reflected fewer prescription opioid pills available for misuse by people with opioid use disorder. Then by 2019 fentanyl was found at ever-increasing frequency and purity in heroin, causing the increase in overdose deaths.

An article by the AMA (American Medical Association) was released just last week, reporting similar findings nationwide. The AMA article says that at least forty states are reporting increases in opioid-related mortality, mostly due to fentanyl-containing drugs. [4]

My state of North Carolina has seen a jump in drug overdoses since March of this year, compared to last year.  According to our state’s Department of Health and Human Services, overdose visits to emergency departments from potentially addicting drugs increased to 1,454 in the month of June in 2020 statewide. This compares with 1,145 in June of 2019 [1]

Other states report similar news.  In a blog last month by Margaret Williams, M.D. says that in Franklin County, home to the state’s capitol of Columbus and to The Ohio State University (my medical school alma mater), during the first four months of 2020, overdose deaths were up by 50% compared to 2019. That’s a big jump. [2]

Why is this happening? In Dr. Williams’ blog, she cites some possible causes: increased financial stress from job loss during COVID and increased stress from social isolation could be a trigger for increased drug use. Boredom and loneliness could also be triggers for use. Then there’s the fearful stress of contracting the COVID virus. Since usual social networks have been interrupted, more people may be using drugs alone, with no one available to call for help or administer Narcan if they overdose.

I agree with Dr. Williams. When people with substance use disorders of all types experience stress, they tend to seek a chemical solution to alleviate that stress. More alcohol has been consumed in this country since the COVD pandemic hit, and so it makes sense that people who prefer opioids would seek to use more opioids when stressed.

It’s not just drug use that people use to alleviate stress. Think of the extra weight many people have gained, eating because they are bored, fearful, or lonely. We humans use drugs, food, sex, gambling, or other things to make us feel better when we have bad feelings. The COVID pandemic has exaggerated ordinary stress for most people.

Conversely, people with substance use disorders are often at higher risk for contracting COVID 19. If they are homeless, they may lack simple things like soap and water. Incarcerated people, the majority of whom have substance use disorders, are subjected to crowding and may lack personal protective gear.

People with substance use disorders may have higher rates of other chronic illnesses, like HIV and Hep C. Most people with substance use disorders smoke cigarettes, a risk factor for contracting COVID and for having more severe illness from COVID.

People with substance use disorders may have even more difficulty that usual accessing treatment services during the COVID pandemic. Despite the push for substance use disorder treatment facilities to remain open, some closed their doors to people at higher risk for COVID infection. For example, some have refused to take new patients directly from jail or prison, due to the increased risk of those patients for COVID>

During COVID, the AMA is asking state governors and state legislatures to remove barriers to treatment of opioid use disorder, specifically by allowing telemedicine to be used for admission and prescribing of life-saving medications. They also ask that other barriers such as prior authorizations for insurance coverage be removed. They ask states to remove barriers for patients with pain, such as dose caps, quantity limits, and refill restrictions. They advocate harm reduction strategies be implemented and supported, such as needle exchanges.

This is all commonsense stuff, not too different from what the addiction treatment field has been asking for years.

Except now, it’s more urgent.

Most providers I know have used telehealth to communicate with their patients. Even though I personally don’t like it as much as in-person visits, it has been a godsend. The technology isn’t perfect, and patients with poor connectivity have a harder time connecting with providers.

For the opioid treatment program, relaxation of the formerly strict take home regulations probably helped the most. We reduced crowding in our waiting room dramatically because of this. It also reduced wait times for patients when they do come in. We still are giving these extra take homes, which I expect will continue until the governor revokes the status of “State of emergency.” Most patients have been helped with the extra take homes, though a few weren’t able to manage their medication as well as we’d hoped. So far as I know, we haven’t had any deaths due to extra take homes, nor have I heard of this from any practitioners working in NC opioid treatment programs.

In other words, I don’t see any evidence that extra take home doses from opioid treatment programs are fueling the rise in opioid overdose deaths. I believe the increase is due to overall stress in the lives of people who use opioids who are not in treatment.



2 responses to this post.

  1. Great summary of what is going on. Thank you!


  2. The most vulnerable to Covid-19 among substance abuses is going to be the crack-smoking homeless. The homeless are vulnerable just by being homeless, but add to that the lung damage from smoking crack and the risk is compounded.


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