COVID-19 has increased the health risks already faced by people who smoke or vape, are currently dealing with substance use disorders, or are in recovery from addiction. The Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, Dr. Nora Volkow, has described the increased risks.
Patients with already compromised lung conditions may be at higher risk for more severe complications from COVID-19. Specifically, people who smoke or vape, or use opioids or methamphetamine may face heightened risk. In addition, chronic opioid use already increases the risk of slowed breathing due to hypoxemia, which can lead to cardiac and pulmonary complications that may result in overdose and death. While all people should be taking precautions to prevent exposure to COVID-19, this is particularly critical for higher risk groups, including people who smoke, vape, or use opioids or methamphetamine. Dr. Volkow urges clinicians to be alert to the possibility of increased risks for adverse COVID-19 outcomes in these patients.
People recovering from addiction now face new challenges. Physical distancing measures, while critical to COVID-19 mitigation, eliminate the important element of social support needed for addiction recovery. Additionally, people with opioid use disorder may face barriers to obtaining medications (i.e., buprenorphine or methadone) or obtaining services from syringe services programs.
Social distancing will also decrease the likelihood of observed overdoses; administration of naloxone to reverse overdose may be less likely, potentially resulting in more fatalities.
Dr. Volkow lauds efforts by the public health community to reduce new challenges for people in recovery, including the deployment of virtual support meetings for those with internet access and the possibility of take-home medications for some people in addiction treatment. Above all, Dr. Volkow stresses that, like other vulnerable people in the United States, people with SUD cannot be forgotten or marginalized during this crisis. (For information about local support meetings, see Support During Challenging Times.)
The COVID-19 pandemic presents unique challenges for people with substance use disorders and in recovery. The following resources may help.
From Dr. Nora Volkow, NIDA Director
Coping with the Collision of Public Health Crises: COVID-19 and Substance Use Disorders. NIH Director’s Blog with Dr. Volkow, April 21, 2020
COVID-19: Potential Implications for Individuals With Substance Use Disorders. Nora’s Blog. April 6, 2020 (En Espanol)
Jo Ann Hummers, EdD, is a Licensed Clinical Addictions Specialist. She has a private practice at the Nags Head Professional Center. Her work includes DWI assessments and treatment, smoking cessation sessions, and treatment for gambling and other addictions.