Last Updated on December 14, 2021 by Dr. Alberto Solà

When the 2020 coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic began, everyone working in the addiction recovery field assumed that this fast-moving, mysterious illness would negatively affect people working on their recovery in a number of ways.

Their assumptions were correct. We are still in the midst of this ongoing pandemic. It has been difficult for everyone, not just in the United States, but worldwide. The unknown is stressful, and stress is challenging for a vast number of reasons.

Stay-at-home orders have forced many people into isolation from friends, family, other loved ones, and the world. Due to the plunge of the national and world economy, many people have suddenly found themselves out of work, and with little money in the bank, their problems have just compounded. While some things have improved in recent weeks, there is really no end in sight, and there is still much that we do not know about this virus.

All of these factors are a strain for everyone, and the pandemic has brought people together in many ways because of it. However, each of these stressors is far more intense and dangerous for people working on their recovery from addiction to drugs and alcohol than it is for most people. Each of the above pieces of the puzzle is a trigger for relapses, and the limited access to support services due to the pandemic has really taken a toll.

The Data So Far

The data about addiction and overdose during this pandemic so far seems to validate people’s fears. Although there have been few studies on the matter as of yet, anecdotal evidence from doctors and other people who work with people that suffer from addiction and people who are working on their recovery in different parts of the country seem to confirm that this COVID-19 pandemic has greatly exacerbated the addiction pandemic in turn. It’s impossible to know yet what damage it has done.

On California’s Monterey Peninsula, overdoses have increased. Dr. Reb Close, a doctor of emergency medicine at Community Hospital of Monterey Peninsula, reported that her hospital normally treats one drug overdose every three days or so; during the pandemic, they have increased to daily. If the patient lives, she asks them if their drug use was pandemic-related; seven out of sixteen patients in April said that they felt that it was.

In Knox County, Tennesse, doctors have seen an uptick in overdose deaths in their county for the three months of the pandemic. From March to June of last year, there were 94; in the year prior during those months, there were 84. This year, there have already been 104, and June is not over yet.

South Carolina residents are suffering as well. Since March, there has been a 39% increase in the use of Narcan as an overdose reversal drug. In Horry County, there were 312 Narcan interventions between March and May, an increase of almost 100 over last year’s 237 over the same period.

Although the above statistics apply to opioids specifically, drug and alcohol use and abuse has increased during the pandemic across the board. One study found that 57% of Florida residents surveyed said that since the pandemic began, they have used drugs and alchol more frequently than usual.

Nationwide, more and more people are turning to drugs and alcohol to cope with the stresses of this pandemic and its side effects. This trend will likely continue until a vaccine is released and even beyond. The economic impacts of this pandemic will be with us for years. As a result, many more people will likely struggle with substance abuse in the months and years ahead. For many, this behavior will only make things worst; for some, it will be fatal.

Limited Services

When this pandemic began, there were many people beginning to seek help for their addictions and some who were in the stages of early recovery. Remaining clean and sober in the early days is challenging under any circumstances, but add in a pandemic, and it’s likely nearly impossible.

Although some people surely persevered, there are many people who wished to do so but failed and are therefore continuing to struggle right now. One of the biggest obstacles these people and others have faced in recovery right now is the lack of addiction recovery services available to them due to social distancing requirements.

Most recovery centers and halfway houses are independent and are therefore unregulated and unfunded by the government. As a result, many of them have been on their own when making decisions about how to proceed in these unprecedented times. Some refused new patients during the pandemic; others shut down completely in order to keep their residents and staff safe.

Even people who have been in recovery for a long period are facing obstacles to their ongoing sobriety. Some of these people have been going to the same support groups for many months or even years and depend on them for face-to-face support on a weekly or even more frequent basis. However, in the time of a pandemic, these groups have dissolved. Many of them have moved online in the interim, but a lot of their participants feel that it isn’t the same.

These Problems Will Persist

These issues and problems are not going away. Although recovery professionals all over the country are doing everything they can to keep support services available to their clients, there are many obstacles and pitfalls along the way. It’s impossible to know when this pandemic will come to an end and at what point everything can return to “normal.” In the meantime, we must support our loved ones in recovery the best ways we can. If you know someone who is working on his or her recovery from addiction to drugs or alcohol, reach out to him or her, and do so often. The helping hand and concern will be appreciated, and it just might save a life during these difficult times.

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