The global pandemic, government lockdowns, job loss, financial stress, and lack of access to support resources have contributed to increased problems with substance use and addiction. Overdoses, for example, began to rise again in 2019, after a decline at the end of 2018. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drug overdose deaths in the United States rose 4.6% In 2019 to 70,980. When the pandemic hit the United States, it was unknown how it would affect people and the economy. However, governments across the country contributed to millions of Americans losing their jobs, livelihood, and businesses because of forced lockdowns, quarantine, and stay at home orders. As the pandemic and government overreach continued, it was clear that every average American family would be affected somehow. The vulnerable were made more vulnerable, such as addicts and those in recovery.

According to a Well Being Trust report, Projected Deaths of Despair of COVID-19, deaths of despair have been on the rise for the last decade. Amid the pandemic, deaths of despair should be seen as the epidemic within the pandemic, similar to the opioid epidemic. The goal of the report was to predict the added deaths of despair created by the pandemic. Across nine different scenarios, deaths of despair ranged from over 27,000 with a quick economic recovery to over 154,000 with a slow economic recovery. Overall, COVID-19 and everything attached to it has placed a significant strain on the economy, American families, and the vulnerable. Per the University of Michigan, the pandemic poses hardships for people with substance use problems.

During 2020, both fatal and nonfatal overdoses have increased this year when compared to 2019. Experts from the University of Michigan believe the pandemic has created several socioeconomic and emotional stressors. Also, the social distancing, feeling of isolation has contributed to a lack of support for those in recovery. Countless addicts across the country are at risk for relapse and overdose and did not have access to proper support. The Addiction Policy Forum found in a recent survey that 34% of respondents reported changes or disruptions in accessing treatment or recovery support services. Also, fourteen percent said they were unable to receive their needed services. Across the nation, approximately 4% of respondents report an overdose has occurred since the pandemic began. Twenty-four percent of survey respondents indicated that their family members' substance use has changed because of COVID-19, with 20% reporting increased substance use.

COVID-19 and the Substance Use Treatment Industry

The pandemic created significant barriers for addicts and those in recovery to overcome. Drug and alcohol treatment centers across the nation had to adapt to what some called the 'new normal.' Finding new ways to help patients became difficult and some treatment centers had to close their doors or reduce services. There are stories across the country of treatment providers adapting and changing the way they operate. For example, the Boston-based construction management firm Commodore Builders announced an expansion of its substance use recovery offering expanded services to those working in the construction industry, which has taken a hit due to COVID-19. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, cited in the article, indicates construction workers have the second-highest rate of substance use of all U.S. professions—the industry has a 17.3% rate of substance use.

Within the state of Pennsylvania, there have been ongoing issues with relapse, overdose, and treatment centers closing. A state official highlighted the state's drug abuse problem amid the pandemic, which was the relapses occurring among young people and treatment centers closing. There are hundreds of licensed treatment centers in the state, which includes for-profit and non-profit programs. A reason for many of the programs closing is decreased revenue and fewer people seeking treatment due to the pandemic. Some of the centers in the state have closed due to the pandemic, along with this, overdose deaths in the state continue. Treatment centers in the state of Kentucky continue to provide resources, and some have reported an increase in demand. However, per the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, there was a five percent increase in drug overdose deaths in the state in 2019.

Health officials and treatment providers across the nation have been reporting an increase in drug overdoses and suicides during the COVID-19 pandemic. The Arizona Department of Health Services observed an increase in deaths due to suicide and drug overdose during the pandemic. Nationally, the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program reported a 17.59% increase in drug overdoses from March 19th to May 19th. Health officials in other states like Illinois and Washington reported similar problems. During all of this, most rehabilitation programs have had to adapt practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Drug addiction and overdose are one aspect of the problem, but treatment providers have also been seeing an uptick in suicide deaths due to the pandemic. According to the Centers for Disease Control Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, approximately 25% of young Americans aged 18-24 have seriously considered killing themselves. The American Association of Suicidology, the Crisis Residential Association, and the National Association of Crisis Organization Directors published impact surveys about the COVID-19 pandemic. Crisis providers across the nation said there had been an increase in substance use issues, an increase in relapses of substance use issues, and an increase in the severity of mental health symptoms. Approximately 37% of suicide hotline providers reported being overwhelmed, while 44% reported being overwhelmed by clinical intensity.

The treatment industry has been significantly impacted by the pandemic, and it is difficult to know how it will recover. However, rehabilitation programs in states like Florida continue to remain open and provide essential services. Addiction and overdose continue to be problematic across the nation, and the increase in substance use appears to be a societal symptom of the pandemic.

The Overdose Epidemic and COVID-19 Pandemic

Before the pandemic occurred, the country was already battling an ongoing epidemic involving opioids. However, when the pandemic struck, anyone struggling with opioid addiction and those in recovery was left to fend for themselves. The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, as mentioned above, has shown an increase in fatal and nonfatal overdose. The CDC also reported an increase in overdose deaths. During the beginning of the pandemic, a high percentage of displaced workers lost their health insurance, which created a perfect storm for people struggling with addiction. According to the article titled An Epidemic in the Midst of a Pandemic: Opioid Use Disorder and COVID-19, people in recovery from opioid addiction are heavily dependent on face-to-face health care delivery.

States across the nation scramble to deal with the compounding COVID and opioid epidemic. As mentioned above, the CDC had already predicted that over 70,000 people had died from a drug overdose in 2019, and the 2020 numbers are expected to exceed this. The Washington Post published an article that suspected overdosed jumped 18% in March of 2020 to 29% in April, and 42% in May. According to the National Institute of Health, substance use disorders constituted 10.3% of the total population done in the study—approximately 15.6% of the COVID-19 cases involved people struggling with addiction. People struggling with addiction were at an increased risk of contracting the virus and dying from it. Hospitalizations and death rates of COVID-19 patients were all elevated in people with recorded substance use disorders.

Searching for Rehabilitation Post Pandemic and What to Expect

Post pandemic, there has been an increased need for people wanting help for addiction and substance use. However, politicians continue to place barriers in front of everyday Americans, despite many states lifting COVID-19 restrictions. Overall, most states have re-opened the economy, and Americans are going back to work. However, the number of Americans struggling with addiction increased, resulting in problems with prevention and treatment. According to an article titled The COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on substance use: Implications for prevention and treatment, the pandemic brought major challenges to healthcare systems and public health policies globally.

Someone with a substance use disorder is part of the at-risk population. The article states, "social and economic changes caused by the pandemic, along with traditional difficulties regarding treatment access and adherence—will certainly worsen during this period, therefore aggravate their condition."

There is an increased need for treatment, but it is also important to ensure the rehabilitation center is taking the proper precautions. Most rehab centers remained open, yet many had to close their doors or reduce their services. Someone struggling with addiction, there is a combined risk of overdose and the new coronavirus. Rehabilitation centers are safe and are taking the necessary precautions to help their patients. Rehab centers are testing patients and adapting the programs to comply with social distancing guidelines while also making sure their facilities have everything needed to treat addiction.

What are Rehabilitation Centers Doing to Mitigate the Problem?

The American Society of Addiction Medicine put forth a guide for addiction treatment clinicians and programs working to treat patients with substance use disorders. The purpose of the document was to provide guidance to residential addiction treatment programs, outpatient centers, and all other forms of treatment for addiction. Some of the policies and practices that treatment centers are encouraged to consider. Staff should wear a facemask, along with residents, when not being able to adequately socially distant. If programs do not have the capacity to isolate or quarantine patients, they should work with local public health authorities. Programs should have clear policies and procedures to address new and current patients.

Screening should also take place per the ASAM guidelines. New patients should be screened over the phone before arrival and should be screened upon arrival. Screening should also be available for current patients, and screening patients and staff returning to the facility. ASAM recommends that every facility develop screening and follow-up and quarantine procedures for patients, staff, and even visitors. The American Society of Addiction Medicine also recommends that treatment providers and physicians should use their personal and professional judgment in interpreting guidance recommendations and applying them to the circumstances of their individual patients and practice agreements.

Considering Rehabilitation and Treatment Post-Pandemic

There is no bad time to consider drug and alcohol treatment, and considering the problems became worse during shutdowns, it essential to treat the addiction before it spirals out of control. For example, according to the 2020 ESO EMS Index: COVID-19 Special Edition, between January 1, 2020, and July 31, 2020, opioid overdose responses jumped 30%. The numbers increased in particular in May and June by approximately 41% and 53%, respectively. COVID-19 should not prevent someone from attending a drug rehabilitation program. Rehabilitation centers are following strict guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and state and federal health authorities. The Centers for Disease Control is also providing information to patients and treatment providers, helping people decide about treatment.

Overall, hospitals and treatment facilities are prioritizing the safety of patients and workers. Despite some facilities having to cut back services, proper care and help are still being provided. Some of the changes have included reducing treatment program capacity to adhere to social distancing. Virtual care and telehealth are becoming more accessible. Some facilities are also able to offer group therapy programming online. Help is available, and addicts and their families should be considering treatment and pursuing the options they have available.

The Result of a Pandemic and a Substance Use Epidemic

Before the pandemic hit, drug overdose deaths were on the rise and reached close to 71,00 in 2019, per the CDC, as mentioned above. Drug overdosed deaths reached a record high in 2019 and increased by 4.6% from 2018. Fentanyl and other synthetic opioids caused 36,500 of the overdose deaths. Federal officials said the COVID-19 pandemic would result in the overdose rate climbing higher in 2020. Drug overdose deaths increased by 11.4% in 2020. Some states have seen a more drastic increase than others; for example, Kentucky saw a 25% increase in overdose deaths between January and March of 2020. West Virginia reported a 50% increase in emergency calls in May. The Washington Post reported overdose deaths have steadily increased from an 18% jump in March of 2020 when compared to March of 2019.

The problems with anxiety, grief, isolation, financial worries, changes at home, and work have left millions of Americans struggling. Most researchers believe it is too soon to have definitive data on the pandemic's effects. However, alcohol sales rose by more than 25%, an analysis of 500,000 urine drug tests showed an increase of 32% for non-prescribed fentanyl, 20% for methamphetamine, and 10% for cocaine from the middle of March through May 2020. Also, suspected drug overdose deaths climbed 18% during that time, and substance use treatment providers note a complete mix of issues among those needing help for addiction. The problems with addiction persist, and the pandemic exacerbated it tremendously.

Why the COVID-19 Pandemic is Making the Opioid Epidemic Worse


Marcel Gemme, DATS

Marcel Gemme, DATS


on June 27, 2022

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Marcel Gemme has been helping people struggling with addiction for over 19 years. He first started as an intake counselor for a drug rehabilitation center in 2000. During his 5 years as an intake counselor, he helped many addicts get the treatment they needed. He also dealt with the families and friends of those people; he saw first-hand how much strain addiction puts on a family and how it can tear relationships apart. With drug and alcohol problems constantly on the rise in the United States and Canada, he decided to use the Internet as a way to educate and help many more people in both those countries. This was 15 years ago. Since then, Marcel has built two of the largest websites in the U.S. and Canada which reach and help millions of people each year. He is an author and a leader in the field of drug and alcohol addiction. His main focus is threefold: education, prevention and rehabilitation. To this day, he still strives to be at the forefront of technology in order to help more and more people. He is a Licensed Drug and Alcohol Treatment Specialist graduate with Honours of Stratford Career Institute. Marcel has also received a certificate from Harvard for completing a course entitled The Opioid Crisis in America and a certificate from The University of Adelaide for completing a course entitled AddictionX: Managing Addiction: A Framework for Succesful Treatment.

Michael Leach, CCMA

Michael Leach, CCMA

Medically Reviewed

on June 27, 2022

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Michael Leach is a Certified Clinical Medical Assistant, who has over 5 years of experience working in the field of addiction. He spent his career working under the board-certified Addictionologist Dr. Rohit Adi. His experience includes working with families during their loved one’s stay in treatment, helping those with substance abuse issues find treatment, and teaching life skills to patients in a recovery atmosphere. Though he has worked in many different areas of rehabilitation, the majority of his time was spent working one on one with patients who were actively withdrawing from drugs. Withdrawal and the fear of going through it is one biggest reason why an addict continues to use and can be the most difficult part of the rehabilitation process. His experience in the withdrawal atmosphere has taught him that regardless of what approach a person takes to get off drugs, there are always mental and emotional obstacles that need to be overcome. He believes having someone there to help a person through these obstacles can make all the difference during the withdrawal process.