While overdose-related cardiac arrests rose during the pandemic, the overall number of overdose incidents did not, the study also found. The authors suggest that increased social isolation during the pandemic may have contributed to the conditions for fatal overdoses.
There are strategies that can help mitigate the mortality associated with drug overdoses even during the pandemic, Friedman said. “Removing logistical and financial barriers to accessing medications like methadone and buprenorphine is especially important,” he said. “Allowing pharmacies to dispense methadone and providing emergency funds to make these medications affordable could make a big difference.”
The new research provides “an interesting and useful way to look at possible trends in overdose deaths,” said Dr. Michael Lynch, medical director of the Pittsburgh Poison Center at UPMC. “What we have seen is that when the pandemic hit, it affected a number of factors, including anxiety and fear. Those factors along with the suggested isolation are just terrible for somebody suffering from substance abuse disorder.”
And while treatment was not completely shut down by the pandemic, it often was offered online, said Dr. Lynch, who was not involved with the new research. The jury is still out on whether that works as well as in person treatment, he added.
Beyond that, peer-based support such as AA “took a real hit because of the imposed isolation,” Dr. Lynch said.
The other problem related to isolation is that when people did use, an overdose was less likely to be identified early, Dr. Lynch said. “Another thing we saw was that even if the person was found and given naloxone by a bystander, they were less likely to call for medical help,” he added.