Addiction Policy Forum issues COVID-19 health advisory to those with substance abuse disorder

Those with substance abuse disorder need to take extra precautions during the coronavirus pandemic, officials at the Addiction Policy Forum warn.

Specifically, those struggling with opioid and methamphetamine use disorders, and those who smoke or vape (either tobacco or marijuana) may be more vulnerable than others to the coronavirus and may develop more severe symptoms.

Because COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, attacks the respiratory system, it can lead to severe complications like respiratory failure or pneumonia, in those with addiction issues, the forum said.

The forum said an estimated 20 million people suffer from a substance use disorder, and that it seemed that individuals suffering from the virus were at greater risk of complications.

Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), noted that “because it attacks the lungs, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 could be an especially serious threat to those who smoke tobacco or marijuana or who vape. People with opioid use disorder (OUD) and methamphetamine use disorder may also be vulnerable due to those drugs’ effects on respiratory and pulmonary health.”

Those who smoke and vape are of particular concern, said Dr. Mark Gold, chairman of the Scientific Advisory Board for Addiction Policy Forum. Because smoking and vaping can damage the lungs, they may be more vulnerable to COVID-19.

“However, the stresses associated with SUDs, the effects of opioids and methamphetamine on the pulmonary and cardiac systems, and the weakening of the immune systems associated with SUDs may similarly put an individual at greater risk of complications from COVID-19,” Gold said.

Those with SUD face other risks – living in densely populated areas, untreated medical diseases, housing insecurity, decreased access to health care, and greater likelihood of incarceration – during a time when treatment for SUD is decreased.

“Use of methamphetamine, cocaine, and synthetic opioids like fentanyl are continuing to increase,” Gold said. “While heroin availability has decreased in some large cities, fentanyl has not decreased at all. Relapses, slips, naloxone availability, and overdoses are a major concern at this time when access to EMTs, Emergency Rooms, Academic and General Hospitals are reduced due to COVID 19. Occasional substance users are drinking and using more drugs, patients with OUDs are wondering whether they need to take their MATs, patients in stable remissions are slipping as face-to-face support, and recovery programs have moved online. Anxiety, loneliness, social isolation, lack of support, nihilism, depression, and despair multiply these effects.”

The forum recommended that those with SUDs should follow CDC guidelines to protect themselves from catching the coronavirus, including washing your hands for 20 seconds, avoiding large gatherings, avoiding touching high-touch surfaces in public places, avoiding touching your face and wearing a mask or scarf.

For those who are in recovery, the forum recommended finding online support where social distancing and stay-at-home requirements may have disrupted support meetings. Also, the forum recommended those in recovery continue to take and refill the medicines and to stay connected to their healthcare provider, even through telehealth appointments if necessary.

“There continues to be an overall lack of access to care related to the crisis and stigma associated with substance use disorders,” Jessica Hulsey, founder of Addiction Policy Forum, said. “Stigma exposes some of the persistent feelings that many have about those with SUDs that can deter a person from seeking treatment or help, which may be exacerbated during this time of fear, anxiety, and social isolation. In addition, the uncertainty and stress associated with this national emergency can lead people who use substances to use more, people who have been treated to relapse, and Americans seem to be consuming more alcohol and other substances as coping mechanisms for stress and anxiety.”

For those who are currently struggling with substance abuse disorder, the forum recommended taking steps to protect themselves if they continue to use, including not sharing supplies like needles, bongs, vapes, pipes, and glasses; not using opioids alone; stocking up on naloxone and making a plan with family members to ensure safe use.

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