Before COVID-19 emerged as a threat to global health, another epidemic was already taking thousands of lives. The opioid crisis is still going strong, with more than two million Americans affected by opioid use disorder (OUD). There are around 130 opioid drug deaths in America each day, making overdose a leading cause of accidental death.
The nation was already struggling to contain U.S. drug overdose deaths when COVID-19 struck, sending the majority of the country into lockdown and sowing economic insecurity for millions of Americans. Now, this unprecedented pandemic is increasing the risk of drug overdoses.
Addiction as a Disease of Isolation
Isolation is bound tightly with addiction. People who spend excessive time alone due to feelings of social exclusion typically have more issues with mental health, including substance abuse. The reverse is also true, and substance abuse leads to further isolation. This relationship creates a cycle that is difficult to break, where addiction and isolation continue to reinforce each other. Some of the outcomes of isolation combined with substance abuse include:
- Disconnection from others.
- Feeling like no one can understand you.
- Feeling like no one cares.
- Feeling abandoned.
- Fear that life will always be this way.
Isolation is unhealthy under any circumstances, but the forced isolation COVID-19 has prompted comes with especially dangerous consequences. The element of the unknown that’s part of our everyday lives creates chronic stress as people face the fact that life as they know it has changed completely.
As the pandemic disrupts plans and goals, many people are feeling helpless. That out-of-control feeling can also make them reckless, which is dangerous because it can change drug use habits. Someone who previously paid careful attention to their dosage amounts might now just keep using until they pass out because they feel there is no future and no point in exercising restraint.
Social contact often has the effect of giving perspective to a person’s addiction. When you socialize regularly, you are more likely to have someone point out excessive use that could lead to overdose. Without outside influence, many people simply don’t have a good understanding of how easily they could overdose.
Solitary Drug Use Increases Overdose Risk
When someone overdoses, it does not have to be fatal. Although someone experiencing an overdose is typically unconscious, they can be saved if someone around them takes action. This can’t happen when the overdosing individual is using alone.
Naloxone has been one of the great advances against opioid overdoses. It is a prescription medication that replaces other opioids like heroin or prescription painkillers on the brain’s opioid receptors, rapidly reversing the fatal respiratory effects of an overdose.
Friends and family of those with opioid addiction are able and encouraged to purchase naloxone, and it has saved many lives. However, fewer people are benefiting from it as they are stuck at home alone at the time of overdose.
Disrupted Support Systems
People struggling with addiction rely heavily on a variety of treatments and services to maintain healthy recovery, yet COVID-19 has led to many of these services being disrupted or shut down. Many rehab facilities and methadone clinics are reducing capacity. Additionally, essential aftercare services like therapy and support groups are no longer available to attend in person. For many people who are less digitally inclined, this cutoff is traumatic.
Fortunately, the federal government has taken measures to make medication-assisted treatment (MAT) more accessible to patients during the pandemic. Normally, people taking methadone must attend the clinic every day to receive their medication. Under the temporary COVID-19 rules, patients can now receive a 14-to-28-day supply of take-home medication depending on their level of stability.
Access to buprenorphine has also become wider, as practitioners can now do some prescribing over the telephone. However, there are not always doctors available to prescribe the medication due to a challenging certification requirement and low caps on the number of patients and prescriptions a doctor can work with. This is part of the reason rehab facilities are considered essential and are still operating.
The Transition to Virtual Services
With the normal pillars of support disintegrating due to COVID-19 measures, many people in recovery feel completely lost and relapse. After a period of sobriety, it’s easy to forget your limits and overdose during a relapse. This makes it more important than ever to pivot to addiction treatment services delivered virtually. If someone can build a new type of support system via online therapy and group meetings, the likelihood of a relapse leading to overdose can decrease.
Delayed Emergency Services
With COVID-19, people overdosing are losing access to emergency services that could potentially save lives. As hospital emergency rooms are flooded with coronavirus patients, officials and experts are repeating the advice that you shouldn’t contact emergency services unless you are in a life-threatening situation. This may lead to someone taking a “wait and see” approach to a friend or family member having an overdose, which can quickly be fatal.
When someone does call 911 for an overdose, the first responders may take longer than normal to arrive due to the high number of COVID-19-related emergencies. Drug overdoses kill quickly, and those few minutes of delay can make the difference between life and death. Once someone’s breathing slows enough or stops altogether, there is only a short amount of time to save their life.
The overburdened healthcare system may not prioritize those suffering from overdoses, and the stigma against people with addiction may stop someone from calling emergency services even in the event of a true emergency. Rehab facilities are fulfilling a crucial function during the COVID-19 pandemic by providing life-saving treatment for people at risk of drug overdose. They are dedicated to helping those with addiction at a time when the general healthcare system is under tremendous strain.
Coronavirus substance abuse is different and even more dangerous than substance abuse under normal circumstances. The risk of overdose is especially high, and the only way to truly prevent it is to get help. Whether you are worried about your own drug use or concerned for someone close to you, now is the time to seek addiction treatment.
Gateway Foundation is leading the industry in treatment during coronavirus by staying up to date with guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). We are open at all levels of care to ensure each client receives the intensity of treatment they need to form a solid foundation in recovery. We also offer virtual outpatient treatment services, so you don’t need to visit one of our facilities to receive treatment.
To learn more about addiction treatment at Gateway, call 877-505-4673 or request more information online.