COVID-19 Pandemic Threatens Opioid Sobriety

For many people who are battling opioid addiction or achieved sobriety, there is a new threat of relapse: the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Mandatory quarantines, shelter-in-place orders and new daily stressors such as the loss of childcare and the demands of running remote school are creating new challenges for people who are or have been addicted.

Diminished access to treatment, therapy sessions and positive socialization all present risk factors for substance abuse relapse, Marcelina Jasmine Silva, DO and and Zakary Kelly, MBA, wrote in an article in The American Journal of Managed Care.

The New York Times was even more blunt, calling the coronavirus pandemic a “national relapse trigger.”

Even in the early days of the pandemic, the trends were alarming.

Opioid and other drug related overdose deaths jumped 38% in the 12-month period that ended in May 2020, according to data recently released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Illicitly manufactured synthetic opioids such as fentanyl are one of the leading causes of overdose deaths, and 37 of the 38 U.S. jurisdictions that track synthetic opioids reported an increase in deaths.

Previous tactics such as limiting access to opioid prescriptions is not improving outcomes in the United States, the authors wrote.

To provide better support to people who have a history of or may be susceptible to opioid abuse, health care and mental health providers, payers, public health officials and others should focus on programs and resources that promote emotional resiliency and address the factors that make people reliant on opioids to begin with, the authors said.

“COVID-19 has offered some painful learning opportunities. Valuable insights learned from factors related to social distancing that are worsening the opioid epidemic point to opportunities to combat the problem via novel treatment approaches to effect change that invest in the antithesis of social distancing,” Silva and Kelly wrote.

If social distancing and isolation contribute to a worsening opioid epidemic, then the opposite approach should reverse that — emotional resiliency building, stress reduction techniques, health education, group treatments (when epidemiologically safe), wider access to pain management alternatives like buprenorphine, and appropriate physical activity.

“To obtain different outcomes, a novel treatment approach is needed: one that invests an early and robust bolus of health care resources to help patients address the factors that made them susceptible to opioid reliance and dependency in the first place,” Silva and Kelly said.

Hall Booth Smith’s (HBS) Opioid Task Force was created to defend physicians, surgeons, pain management specialists and other health care providers as well as physician groups, hospitals, surgical centers, urgent care clinics and other organizations on the full range of opioid and prescription-related claims they may face. For more information about HBS’s Opioid Task Force, please contact Partner J. Brent Allen.

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