Addiction Treatment During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Last Updated: October 4, 2021

Authored by Roger Weiss, MD

Reviewed by Michael Espelin APRN

The COVID-19 pandemic has delivered one of the hardest blows ever to people who need addiction treatment. When various world health organizations demanded isolation to stop the spread of coronavirus, those with substance use disorder (SUD) were at a high risk of staying alone with their dependence. Crumbling jobs, disrupted friendships, and decreased access to healthcare can all be devastating to someone who has just started to break out from the clenches of addiction and is actively endangered in substance abuse treatment.

Staying face-to-face with addiction without any support is the worst option that a person can choose during the pandemic. Drug rehab centers across the US recognized this acute need for treatment and worked to adapt to the new reality of the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, rehabilitation facilities may present the safest environment for people with SUD, as they take extra precautions to minimize the risks of their patients contracting coronavirus on the premises. Now that many people have been vaccinated, and it seems that we have gotten through the worst of the pandemic, it’s hard to estimate just how many lives these measures saved. One thing we do know for sure is that the world is slowly getting back on track to normalcy, but let’s take a look at how the COVID-19 pandemic affected addiction treatment.

COVID-19 In Numbers

Getting quantitative statistics on COVID-19 is difficult due to the sheer number of people and areas affected, leading to conflicting figures and information concerning the pandemic. The viral agent responsible for the COVID-19 pandemic is known as SARS-CoV-2 and is closely related to another virus, SARS-CoV-1, which was last detected at an outbreak in 2002. This 18-year gap made tracking the origins of the SARS-CoV-2 complex.

Young scientist looking through the microscope at COVID-19 virus.

Current research suggests that the virus originated in bats and was transmitted to humans through an unidentified intermediary vector in Wuhan, Hubei province, China, in December 2019. By March 2020, the World Health Organization officially confirmed the outbreak of a novel coronavirus disease caused by the severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) to be a global pandemic.

While widespread social-distancing practices, vaccinations, and other measures taken to curb the spread of the disease lead to an initial fall in the number of new cases, reinfection rates have surged due to the appearance of a more infectious variant of the virus known as the delta variant which quickly became the dominant strain in the United States.

Are Rehabs Still Open?

Yes, drug rehabilitation centers are still functioning and are following all the necessary precautions to curb the spread of the virus among their patients. Regular testing, social-distancing guidelines, and ensuring that their centers have adequate sanitation facilities are just a few of the measures most rehabilitation centers took just in time to curb the spread of the virus.

Vaccination Policy in Rehabs

While current rehab policy does not demand that all patients be vaccinated, the CDC strongly advises that all current and recovering drug abusers receive the vaccine. That is because they have been identified as a high-risk group for developing the more severe form of COVID-19 known as Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome or SARS. However, as of now, there is no definite national policy guiding vaccination and quarantine among drug rehabilitation centers.

Old man receiving a COVID vaccine.

COVID-19 Testing in Drug Rehabs

Some drug rehabilitation centers provide COVID-19 testing services. While COVID-19 testing is free at most health centers and select pharmacies, the guidelines are somewhat murky. In some areas and under certain conditions, COVID-19 testing can cost as much as $50-$200 depending on factors such as location, insurance, and the facility where the testing took place. A positive COVID-19 test while in rehab may mean that the individual will have to undergo temporary isolation for further evaluation.

How Drug Rehabs Adapt To The COVID-19 Pandemic: Protecting Patients and Staff

As all aspects of our lives were affected by the global pandemic, drug rehabilitation centers were not left exempt. They took various active measures to curb the spread of the virus among their facilities, ensure the safety of both health workers and patients, and lastly, discover sustainable ways to maintain some level of function while still operating.

To prevent the spreading of COVID-19, every drug addiction treatment center conducts phone screenings before inviting prospective patients in. It helps reduce the time that a person needs to spend outside and prepares the staff to accommodate the needs of that particular patient. On arrival, patients are asked about experiencing any symptoms of coronavirus (cough, fever, and feeling ill). Also, drug rehabs provide their visitors with protective equipment to eliminate the possibility of spreading and contracting COVID-19, like face masks, gloves, etc.

In Addition, in Compliance With CDC Guidelines for Clinics During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Addiction Treatment Centers Do the Following:

  • Provide hand sanitizers, tissues, and trash cans in their waiting rooms
  • Place chairs at a sufficient distance from one another to stop the spread of coronavirus
  • Conduct regular cleaning and disinfection in the treatment facilities, ensuring that the items (like magazines and books) that can be potentially contaminated with COVID-19 are not used by patients in their waiting rooms

Remote Access To Buprenorphine

Buprenorphine is a critical medication in drug addiction treatment that should not be discontinued abruptly. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, doctors may conduct consultations and issue prescriptions via phone, Skype, FaceTime, and other non-HIPAA compliant resources. Also, providers of the medication may allow refills without in-person visits to stop the spread of COVID-19.

More Access To Naloxone

Naloxone can be vital in addiction treatment, particularly in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic. It is a drug used to mitigate the effects of an opioid overdose. Naloxone can immediately reverse the respiratory depression caused by opioids and preserve a person’s life for as long as it’s necessary to get to a hospital or an addiction treatment facility. In the current situation, patients may obtain naloxone without a prescription at an increased number of pharmacies. Doctors also may issue electronic prescriptions for the drug.

Telehealth

Telehealth in the discussed context refers to providing addiction treatment services via telecommunication technologies to reduce the exposure of vulnerable patients to COVID-19. During the pandemic, national addiction hotlines and online appointments can be crucial for stopping coronavirus without sacrificing the quality of care for those who need addiction treatment. Also, due to the pandemic, patients have more access to AA meetings online, e-prescriptions, and phone- or chat-based consultations.

Online Support Groups

A huge part of addiction treatment consists of giving and receiving support from other people struggling with the same problem. Unfortunately, during the coronavirus pandemic, the dangers of in-person meetings outweigh the benefits in the vast majority of cases. To prevent addiction treatment from halting because of coronavirus, support groups have moved to the cloud. Currently, numerous rehabilitation centers offer online NA meetings and group therapy sessions to support their patients in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic.

How Has the Pandemic Influenced Addiction?

One inevitable thing is that the COVID-19 pandemic affected all aspects of our lives, even some unexpected areas such as drug addiction. For example, a study by the CDC reported an increase in alcohol and illicit substance use, most likely linked to the stress of facing a potentially life-threatening event and the increased isolation brought about by the social distancing and lockdown measures enforced in most areas.

Social distancing: man and woman wearing masks on the benach in the park.

These same factors of fear and isolation may also have pushed individuals who previously had no history of substance abuse into using psychoactive substances as a coping mechanism.

Expectedly, more drug abuse is likely to be correlated with more instances of overdoses. According to figures from the CDC, there was an increase in drug-related overdoses of about 31% in the United States over the past year.

Another issue is that border closures have reduced the availability of certain substances of abuse, causing addicts to seek out newer and more potentially dangerous ways of getting “high.” According to the CDC, this led to an upsurge in the use of certain psychoactive drugs and less pure forms of common street drugs. It also caused them to actively seek out these scarce street drugs during the lockdown, increasing their chances of becoming infected and spreading the virus.

The last important issue to touch on is the link between substance use disorders and mental illness. Not only did the pandemic cause significant challenges to the ability of those experiencing various mental illnesses to get the help they need. The isolation, anxiety, and hysteria experienced during this pandemic also caused a surge in new episodes of mental illness, with 31% of adults reporting significant symptoms of anxiety within a few months of the pandemic.

Why People With SUD Are At Higher Risk For Coronavirus

Addiction treatment during the coronavirus pandemic is pressing because it can save people not only from life-shattering drug dependence but COVID-19 as well. Research indicates that the virus primarily targets the older population and those in recovery from any illness. Pre-existing respiratory conditions and a weakened immune system, in particular, can put a person in danger of suffering severe consequences of contracting COVID-19. In addition, people who require drug addiction treatment are at a higher risk because they are more likely to smoke, vape, share syringes and other drug-using equipment, and suffer from stigmatization at clinics.

Coronavirus is an airborne disease, meaning it spreads through the air in microscopic droplets. Social distancing is the most effective preventive measure against the coronavirus pandemic because it eliminates the possibility of sick people spreading the virus further and infecting the healthy part of the population and surfaces and products in stores, cafes, and other public spaces.

History Of Chronic Disease

One of the most crucial factors that determine a person’s resistance to COVID-19 is the individual’s initial state of health. Those needing addiction treatment are highly vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic because their well-being is already undermined by drug use. Smoking marijuana, crack, cocaine, and heroin significantly increases the risk of developing asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD), which can be deadly combined with COVID-19.

Doctor checking patien's x-ray on the computer.

The pandemic is also increasingly dangerous for cocaine and intravenous drug users due to the prevalence of cardiovascular diseases among this population. At this time, drug addiction centers can save a person’s life not only by helping them overcome drug dependence but by boosting their resistance to coronavirus.

Higher Rates Of Smoking And Vaping

Smoking and vaping are both significant aggravating factors during the COVID-19 pandemic. Drug users are reported to be more frequent smokers than people who don’t use other drugs apart from nicotine. Coronavirus impacts people who smoke much more heavily than non-smokers because it attacks and damages the lungs. Besides, the respiratory symptoms of smoking and the COVID-19 infection can be complemented with respiratory depression developed from opioid drugs.

Sharing Drug-Using Equipment

The COVID-19 pandemic can be incredibly violent to those who share drug-using equipment, such as bongs and syringes. It is possible to get infected with coronavirus by interacting with an infected object and touching one’s nose, mouth, or eyes. Although it is not the primary way COVID-19 spreads, the possibility exists, particularly when a certain object is passed around many people. The CDC also notes that coronavirus spreads the fastest when people are close to each other (less than 6 feet), which is usually the case when sharing drug-using equipment. This way, addiction treatment can shield a person from getting sick while also contributing to the fight against the pandemic.

Coronavirus Pandemic Does Not Cancel Addiction Treatment

Despite how bleak the situation may look, there is still a strong ray of light at the end of the tunnel. Newer and more well-guided policies towards curbing the spread of the virus and the presence of an effective vaccine mean that individuals with a substance use disorder should continue to seek help from drug rehabilitation centers and seek professional help maintaining sobriety during hard times such as these.

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Published on: April 3rd, 2020

Updated on: October 4th, 2021

About Author

Roger Weiss, MD

Dr. Roger Weiss is a practicing mental health specialist at the hospital. Dr. Weiss combines his clinical practice and medical writing career since 2009. Apart from these activities, Dr. Weiss also delivers lectures for youth, former addicts, and everyone interested in topics such as substance abuse and treatment.

Medically Reviewed by

Michael Espelin APRN

8 years of nursing experience in wide variety of behavioral and addition settings that include adult inpatient and outpatient mental health services with substance use disorders, and geriatric long-term care and hospice care.  He has a particular interest in psychopharmacology, nutritional psychiatry, and alternative treatment options involving particular vitamins, dietary supplements, and administering auricular acupuncture.