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Colliding Epidemics: COVID-19 and Opioid Addiction

Learn more about our Opioid Task Force here.

With millions of Americans already struggling with opioid addiction, the coronavirus outbreak has many health care officials worried that socially marginalized people who already have underlying health conditions may be especially vulnerable to developing COVID-19.

Before the coronavirus outbreak reached the United States, about 130 Americans were dying each day from opioid overdose.

Now health care providers are concerned that disruptions in treatment programs and the administration of effective medications for opioid use disorder (OUD) treatment such as methadone and buprenorphine could put patients at greater risk for lapses or noncompliance, especially if they end up in the hospital with COVID-19 and can’t communicate their health history to emergency and acute care providers.

One tool could be the temporary suspension of federal limits on the number of patients a clinical prescriber can treat at the same time, Dr. William C. Becker and Dr. David A. Fiellin wrote in a recent article in the Annals of Internal Medicine. Clinicians are currently limited in how many patients they can concurrently treat in their first year, and removing that restriction would expand resources by allowing fewer prescribers to care for more patients.

Another tactic could be a quick expansion of mentors from the federally funded Prescriber Clinical Support System by authorizing caregivers in primary care, addiction medicine, and addiction psychiatry societies to temporarily support clinicians and possibly prescribe for patients in their area if regular prescribers aren’t available, the authors wrote.

An added benefit is that these networks would be able to also provide remote consultative services to reduce the length of stay for OUD patients who are admitted to hospitals for COVID-19 treatment.

Lastly, the coronavirus shutdowns have also impacted many courts and could cause further delays in lawsuits that were close to resolution and could have provided funding from settlements or verdicts that is acutely needed by victims’ families. Attorneys and court systems could work to prioritize and accelerate cases that were near a resolution, the authors wrote.

Swift and proactive action by legal, policy and clinical leaders can help save lives for vulnerable populations who were already battling one epidemic and now suddenly face another.