Job loss, anxiety, isolation: Coronavirus is a prescription for more opioid use

We need to rework and strengthen the recovery networks that have been decimated due to COVID-19. We can't afford to lose the war on opioid addiction.

Mary Bono
Opinion contributor

All of us are battling the coronavirus right now, and more than 2 million Americans are also fighting another deadly epidemic. And the very things they need to do to stave off the coronavirus may make their illness worse. 

For anyone who suffers from opioid addiction, particularly those struggling to recover, the grueling isolation required by stay-at-home orders, along with job losses, financial fears and anxiety over COVID-19, add up to a potential prescription for relapse. 

In a briefing on March 29, President  Donald Trump recognized the risk. “You’re going to have massive depression, meaning mental depression,” he told reporters. “But you know what you’re going to have more than anything else? Drug addiction. You will see drugs being used like nobody has ever used them before. And people are going to be dying all over the place from drug addiction.” 

Trump said he hoped this dire scenario could be prevented. This will take some doing. 

Unemployment drives opioid deaths

Opioids, particularly prescription painkillers, have been killing Americans in increasing numbers for nearly two decades. In 2018, the epidemic took 128 lives a day.

Long before coronavirus shattered the economy, joblessness drove some people to addiction. One 2017 study found that every percentage point increase in a county’s unemployment rate drove up the opioid death rate by 3.6%. Now millions of jobs are disappearing throughout the nation. 

To prevent an even more catastrophic rise in addiction and death, the nation will need to rework and strengthen the recovery networks decimated in recent weeks. 

Prescription oxycodone pills.

Tens of thousands of people who normally find vital help at Narcotics Anonymous and other group meetings have seen those meetings shut down. Crucial face-to-face sessions with doctors and counselors have been curtailed. Many people in recovery who take methadone, one of the most widely used treatment drugs, typically go each day to a licensed treatment center where the drug is dispensed under supervision. Now, though, traveling to crowded clinics exposes them to coronavirus risk.

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Fortunately, the recovery community has been quick to find ways to cope. Narcotics Anonymous and other groups have largely switched to online and video meetings. Doctors and counselors are seeing patients via telemedicine but are still available in person for emergencies. 

Relaxing rules to support patients

The federal government moved speedily last month to ease rules requiring in-person daily visits for lifesaving methadone and relaxed other rules for another key opioid treatment medication, buprenorphine. Ohio, one of the states hardest hit by the opioid epidemic, was one of the first to develop and get federal approval for a new plan that allows licensed treatment programs to dispense up to a 14-day supply of methadone to stable patients. And Ohio designed other smart strategies to support people in recovery. 

Of course, change can increase risk. Even a stable patient coping with today’s stress could relapse and overdose on methadone. On balance, relaxed rules allow programs to judge patients individually and likely will save lives. But it’s also crucial that naloxone, which can reverse an opioid overdose, be even more available than during normal times. 

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For those in recovery, “this time really is the perfect storm,” says Rick Massatti, chief of Ohio’s Substance Use Disorder Treatment. “Ohio is committed to dealing with the pandemic head on and changing policies as needed.”

That’s the spirit that can get us through these dual epidemics. All of us can help. Imagine navigating the loneliness and stress most of us are feeling while also fighting another devastating disease. Reach out to friends, neighbors and loved ones in recovery. Talk to them every day. Offer a virtual hug. 

And recognize that while we’re all battling the coronavirus, we cannot afford to lose the war on opioid addiction. 

Former California congresswoman Mary Bono is chairman and CEO of Mothers Against Prescription Drug Abuse (MAPDA). Follow her on Twitter: @MaryBonoUSA