CSA News

The Opioid Crisis Left Behind During the COVID-19 Global Pandemic

By Anita Gupta, DO, MPP, Pharm.D | Jul 21, 2021
When an emergency like COVID-19 occurs, it causes all red alarms to go off for everyone involved. But what happens to those who were already in a crisis before the pandemic hit?

When an emergency like COVID-19 occurs, it causes all red alarms to go off for everyone involved. But what happens to those who were already in a crisis before the pandemic hit?

The pandemic, opioid crisis, and financial despair combined are some of the most significant health and economic displacements in the United States history. The cause is the financial burden of medical care, mistrust of the medical system, and increasing isolation from lack of healthcare system access that is likely to persist well beyond 2021. Together this will leave hundreds of patients with pre-existing chronic conditions, including substance use disorders lagging with discontinuous medical care. 

We're seeing the healthcare ripple and fallout now across major cities in the U.S. and around the world with lost jobs, economic displacement, technology barriers, and many families are struggling to handle the crisis on top of the pre-existing crisis presented to them much earlier than 2020.

The opioid crisis has peaked for the last 12 months ending in May 2020 and according to the CDC, drug overdose deaths rose by close to 30% in the United States in 2020, hitting the highest number ever recorded, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More than 93,000 people died from drug overdoses in 2020, according to provisional data released by the CDC's National Center for Health Statistics. That's a 29.4% increase from the 72,151 deaths projected for 2019.

Hundreds of families and patients may be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic as many may be unwilling to engage with the healthcare system given the lack of access to care or fear of stigma, especially when it comes to substance use disorders.  For people struggling with substance use disorders, 2020 has triggered a significant rise in emergency room visits for cardiac arrest tied to drug overdoses, according to a new research study that showed "a large-magnitude, national surge in overdose-related cardiac arrest during the initial months of the COVID-19 pandemic".  

First, the lack of access to preventative care can lead to challenges for patients' health overall.  Many patients are fearful of engaging with healthcare for the potential risk of contracting COVID-19. Therefore, they cannot get the care they need to prevent or treat substance use disorders adequately, which further worsens their condition. Or they may not be able to access the care even with virtual care options due to financial barriers, lack of technology creating a widening medical and digital divide, or pre-existing disability. Often, patients are not equipped with the resources to access healthcare with ongoing complications.

Second, fragmented and uncoordinated care creates a loss for both the patients, providers and policymakers. When patients cannot get the care they need, this can create poor health for themselves and an entire population of patients and a community. When a society is not improving health in totality, this impacts everyone and drives up the total cost of medical care. Given this situation, it is a massive challenge for healthcare systems to improve to address both the opioid crisis and the COVID-19 pandemic that educate, drive vaccine awareness, and treat while also building trust for all patients ahead. 

Third, a public health emergency creates deepening despair of lost jobs, technology barriers and further widens the access to healthcare, the economic burden on both patients and healthcare professionals that can impact direct patient care outcomes.  When this happens, patient long-term outcomes can be affected and drive down patient satisfaction and the quality of care that one receives overall, pandemic or not. This, in turn, impacts not only one patient but can impact an entire community and population over time, which often takes years to notice in a society that often is unheard and unseen both in the workplace and in medical wards. 

The rise of a significant crisis or pandemic presents many challenges. There is an unmet need to address this rising wave of patients that have been left behind from the opioid crisis now impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.  Many of these patients are still waiting for treatment solutions, steadfast healthcare policies, providers willing to take on their complex conditions, and innovative and technology options ready to deliver the breakthroughs and the future of health that every patient deserves. 

Anita Gupta, D.O., MPP, Pharm.D., appointed physician faculty at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Anesthesiology and Critical Care, and alumnae of Harvard Business School and Princeton University's School of Policy, Distinguished Fellow of National Academies of Practice and advisory member of the National Academies of Science's Global Forum and the U.S. FDA. More: https://www.anitagupta.com/about