COVID-19 and Addiction: A Tale of Two Pandemics

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused a lot of stress and anguish for a lot of people. Public health actions, such as stay-at-home orders and social distancing, can make people feel isolated and lonely, increasing stress and anxiety. More than 160,000 Americans have died of the disease. Since February, most of the attention in the United States has understandably been focused on the pandemic. 

Unfortunately, the acute crisis has made another pandemic largely invisible. America’s addiction crisis is far from over—in fact, COVID-19 has made the addiction epidemic worse in many ways. More stress and more trauma translate into more substance misuse and more relapse for people with addiction. Stay-at-home orders and social distancing, on the other hand, pose difficult challenges for treatment programs.  

“The pains wrought by both the coronavirus and addiction are devastating millions of families,” wrote Joseph Califano and Creighton Drury in a recent op-ed for The Hill. “However, our responses to the two public health crises couldn’t be more different. Scientists and researchers rush to develop new vaccines and therapies for COVID-19, and officials seek to assure us each day that the virus is preventable. A comparable sense of urgency and fervor to prevent and treat addiction is nonexistent. Addiction is a preventable, treatable disease. But the public health cavalry never arrived. Instead, addiction remains stigmatized and misunderstood.”

“Stigma on the part of healthcare providers who tacitly see a patient’s drug or alcohol problem as their own fault leads to substandard care or even to rejecting individuals seeking treatment,” wrote Nora Volkow, the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), on her blog in April. “People showing signs of acute intoxication or withdrawal symptoms are sometimes expelled from emergency rooms by staff fearful of their behavior or assuming they are only seeking drugs. People with addiction internalize this stigma, feeling shame, and refusing to seek treatment as a result.”

While the stigma persists and a “sense of urgency” is missing, COVID-19 has had a severe impact on people with addiction. In a recent article, Dubey, Gosh, et al. analyzed the intricate bi-directional relationship between COVID-19 and addiction.

“People with SUD are at greater risk of worse COVID-19 outcome. There is a surge of addictive behaviors (both new and relapse) including behavioral addiction in this period. Withdrawal emergencies and death are also being increasingly reported. Addicted people are especially facing difficulties in accessing healthcare services which are making them prone to procure drugs by illegal means.”

The authors concluded that “COVID-19 and addiction are the two pandemics which are on the verge of collision” causing a major public health threat. Both pandemics require urgent attention.

“While it’s hardly surprising that our attention has been elsewhere this year, Congress must now address the rising overdose deaths that are rapidly mounting,” wrote Califano and Drury. “As we focus on the pressing crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and struggle for racial justice, it may seem understandable that addiction would remain on the back burner. Closer examination, however, reveals this is a false choice and poignant reminder of another haunting truth: addiction has become a cautionary tale in the national narrative of what happens when we ignore public health crises and social inequities.”

People with addiction ready to go into recovery should not delay seeking treatment for their disease. If you or someone you know is struggling with substance misuse but you are unsure what addiction treatment services are available during the COVID-19 pandemic, please contact The Farley Center at 800.582.6066 to find out about your options.