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Do Opioid Patients Face Higher Risk During COVID-19 Treatment?

Learn more about our Opioid Task Force here.

People struggling with opioid use disorder (OUD) and methamphetamine use may encounter more serious risks if they develop COVID-19 because of the way those drugs already affect their respiratory and pulmonary health.

Those with substance abuse disorders are also more likely to be homeless or live in crowded situations where coronavirus can spread more rapidly. That may increase their risk of catching the deadly novel virus or passing it on to others when they have a mild case and symptoms that aren’t obvious, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.

The shutdowns and self-quarantine orders may also disrupt access to opioid treatment medications, syringe services and other support programs that OUD patients need, which could make them more susceptible to relapse or otherwise weaken their immune systems.

SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, attacks the respiratory tract and seems to have a significantly higher fatality rate than seasonal influenza.

That has healthcare and policy officials worried about the impact of COVID-19 on people with OUD and other underlying health issues, such as diabetes, cancer, and respiratory conditions such as COPD, cardiovascular disease, and asthma.

But little is known about whether or how COVID-19 behaves differently in people with substance abuse disorders.

Because opioids work in the brainstem and slow breathing, they increase the risk of a dangerous reduction in blood oxygen levels (hypoxemia). And if a person also developed COVID-19 and had diminished lung capacity, the effects of opioids could be exacerbated and make the virus harder to treat, according to NIDA.

More proactive surveillance is necessary to monitor the emerging threat to public health and the possibility of a higher correlation between substance abuse and COVID-19 severity and mortality, health officials say.