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The Importance of Addiction Treatment Even (and Especially) Amid COVID-19

By Deni Carise, PhD, Chief Scientific Officer, Recovery Centers of America and Dawn Belamarich, LPC, LCADC, ACS, Senior VP, Clinical & Operational Excellence, Recovery Centers of America

The United States is suffering an epic pandemic-epidemic collision. Along with the worry, frustration, and uncertainty we have felt for two years with the global COVID-19 pandemic, our nation is simultaneously battling an historic opioid epidemic of massive proportions, both indiscriminately affecting all ages, genders, and races. Sadly, the casualties continue to add up.

Deaths due to drug overdose topped one million for the first time since the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention began collecting data more than two decades ago (this includes the 932,364 people who died from 1999-2020 and the more than 101,000 people who lost their lives in the past 12 months, an all-time high). Concurrently, as of the writing of this piece, 889,522 lives have been lost to COVID in this country. Mercifully, the current Omicron variant appears to be less lethal, vaccinations have been widely accepted, and deaths from COVID have seen a steady decline. In fact, COVID mortality rates that peaked at 6.29% in May of 2020 have now shrunk to 1/5 of that number in this country. We are (fortunately) seeing decreasing mortality with COVID, while (unfortunately) experiencing increasing mortality with drug use/overdose.

More than 40 million Americans are living with substance use disorder (SUD). Moreover, the COVID pandemic has likely contributed to an increase of substance use and exacerbated the opioid epidemic. Americans are struggling with hopelessness and despair from loss of employment, financial hardships, isolation, personal relationship strains, and more, and self-medicating with substances to numb the pain.

Now, realizing that there will be no quick resolution or end to the COVID virus, experts are advising that we adapt to the “new normal” of living with it. A recent poll also shows that the majority of the public believes “it’s time we accept that COVID is here to stay and we just need to get on with our lives.” But what does living with COVID indefinitely entail, particularly for those also affected by the opioid epidemic?

The new normal requires recognizing that COVID is but one of several circulating respiratory viruses such as influenza. It means we must incorporate necessary precautions including vaccination but continue safely living our lives. Importantly, it means we must prioritize other serious health issues such as SUD when they arise and seek treatment without hesitation or fear of the COVID virus.

From the early months of the pandemic, experts were concerned that delayed or avoided medical care might increase morbidity and mortality associated with both chronic and acute health conditions. As it turned out, 4 in 10 adults reported avoiding care due to concerns related to COVID-19. Perhaps not surprisingly then, we have seen an increase in emergency department visits for overdose-related incidents during this time as people delay treatment and allow their SUD to worsen in severity.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Addiction treatment—whether through virtual, telehealth platforms or in-person residential or outpatient settings—is still available, with treatment centers prioritizing the health and safety of patients, families, and staff with protocols to prevent and contain the spread of COVID-19. Many, such as Recovery Centers of America, take precautions further by conducting frequent COVID testing and having every staff member vaccinated (excluding those with medical or religious exemptions). Given these extensive efforts, concerns about COVID should never influence the decision for one to seek or stay in addiction treatment.

But this is happening. We are repeatedly seeing people put off treatment or discharge early because of unfounded COVID concerns.

Families and loved ones of people struggling with addiction: we cannot accept the excuse of COVID, or allow our own fears of it, to put off treatment. Aside from the professional and personal relationships that prolonged drug use may cost an individual, delaying treatment can cause long-term damage to their major organs and allows their addiction to get worse. With the drugs available today, and the likelihood that cocaine, amphetamines, and opioids are laced with the powerful, deadly drug fentanyl, we can’t afford to wait. Identifying the problem and seeking help early can allay risk, improve treatment success, and prevent death.

We need to encourage people struggling with substance use disorders to get help now and those in treatment to stay there as medically advised; we cannot allow the current COVID pandemic to turn people into a statistic for the parallel drug epidemic we are fighting.

Without a doubt, now and always, treatment is still the safest place for people struggling with the disease of addiction.

If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction, call 1-800-RECOVERY.



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