Confronting Another Pandemic Impact: Skyrocketing Opioid-Related Deaths

January 26, 2021

During the first few weeks of 2021, the United States approached 400,000 deaths from COVID-19. The healthcare sector is grappling with testing individuals, treating new cases and vaccinating as many people as possible. While COVID-19-specific health issues have topped the headlines for months, other public health concerns remain challenging. One example is the growing number of opioid-related deaths.

As Addiction Treatment Gaps Grow, Overdoses Soar

In December 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) identified that drug overdose deaths increased to the highest number ever recorded in a twelve-month period. In the twelve months ending in May 2020, the United States saw around 81,230 deaths due to drug overdoses. The largest spike in deaths occurred between March 2020 and May 2020. A major contributor to these fatalities are synthetic opioids such as fentanyl.

Experts believe that the economic fallout from the pandemic, in combination with efforts to combat COVID-19, have exacerbated opioid use and subsequent opioid-related deaths. Social determinants of health known to be correlated with opioid misuse include poverty, unemployment, stressful circumstances and a history of severe depression and/or anxiety. For many, the pandemic has resulted in job losses which have launched a downward spiral of stress and economic strain.

Lockdowns and social distancing, intended to reduce transmission of the virus, have dramatically increased isolation. It’s much more challenging for individuals to participate in 12-step programs and other support meetings that are used to combat opioid addiction. While some programs like Narcotics Anonymous have shifted their meetings to video conferencing platforms, not all participants have access to a computer or the internet. As a result, they no longer can rely on a vital source of support.

In addition, social isolation means that many people using opioids are using them alone. This increases the danger of overdosing alone, which can be fatal. The American Medical Association recently reported that over 40 states have seen higher numbers of opioid-related deaths since the outset of the pandemic.

COVID-19 has also affected access to substance use treatment clinics. Lines for care are long due to check-in procedures and social distancing requirements. Over the course of a day, fewer individuals can be seen than prior to the pandemic.

Innovative Technology and Data-Driven Strategies Can Stop Unnecessary Fatalities

Health plans and providers are all hands on deck to deal with COVID-19. While resources for other types of care may seem limited, work is needed to address public health priorities like opioid-related deaths.

In light of the surging number of fatal drug overdoses, the CDC recommended in December 2020 that the healthcare sector expand overdose prevention education programs and identify individuals at highest risk for overdose as early as possible.

Healthcare organizations can combine demographic data like gender and age with claims data – such as current medical diagnoses, duration of (opioid or pain) treatment, opioid dosage and number of refills – can also highlight patients or members who are at risk or currently struggling with opioid addiction. Predictive risk analytics are valuable for finding individuals with rising risk. Those groups can be targeted for care management intervention.

Health engagement management platforms can streamline the process of outreach. Health plans that use these solutions find that it’s easy to contact different groups with important information, such as news about behavioral health care, resources to help with addiction, etc. Many plans and providers also leverage health outreach campaigns to better understand not only barriers to care but also whether individuals have a place to sleep, have enough food, etc. Using these tools to identify people most impacted by the pandemic and linking them with community resources is more important now than ever.

Communication around opioid use is vital. Unique opportunities may exist to pair COVID-19 vaccination campaigns with programs to identify people who are struggling with addiction. Former Representative Patrick Kennedy recently suggested that during vaccination clinics, healthcare providers could ask a few screening questions to flag who could benefit from addiction-related services. These short assessments could be included in any and all interactions with the healthcare system.

The opioid crisis has not gone away. The pandemic has highlighted many disparities in healthcare and has exacerbated conditions like anxiety, depression and substance use disorder. The healthcare sector can’t overlook this aspect of the COVID-19 crisis. The time to take action is now.

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