Colliding Epidemics Highlight Need for More Resources

Colliding Epidemics of COVID-19 and Opioid Use Disorder Highlight Need for More Resources and Expanded Treatment

As cases of COVID-19 continue to spread across America, the effects of the pandemic on the opioid crisis are creating mounting concerns nationwide.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released provisional drug overdose death counts from 2019, which show that there were 70,980 reported deaths due to drug overdose -- a 4.6% increase compared to 2018 (67,850).2 Local reporting indicates an alarming growth in 2020 rates of fatal overdoses as well The Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP), which provides close to real-time tracking of overdose events across the country through inter-agency collaboration, found a 20 percent increase in suspected overdoses since the first reported case of COVID-19 in comparison to the same time frame in 2019.3 The data show suspected overdoses have increased 18 percent in March, 29 percent in April, and 42 percent in May in comparison to 2019.4

Addiction Policy Forum released a research report that detailed survey results of more than 1,000 patients, families, and individuals in recovery to examine the impact of COVID-19 on people impacted by substance use disorder (SUD). The research found that 20 percent reported increased substance use and 4 percent reported an overdose since the pandemic began. Additionally, 1 in 3 reported changes in treatment or recovery support services.1

Several localities nationwide have reported dangerous spikes in fatal overdoses during the pandemic. Franklin County, Ohio reported that the first four months of 2020 showed 50 percent more deaths than that same time period in 2019. Similarly, Milwaukee reported that in March and April of 2020, they have had a 54 percent increase in drug overdose calls compared to the same time frame in 2019.3 ODMAP has also reported that overdose clusters have moved from urban areas to suburban and rural areas.4 These large spikes in cases may be attributed to disrupted supply lines, social distancing measures, and the closing of many treatment and recovery centers.6

Top health officials warn that drug overdose is a rapidly growing issue that cannot be neglected during the pandemic.

Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) warned, “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.” 5

Addiction Policy Forum’s Jessica Hulsey adds, “Our country must urgently remedy the decrease in access to treatment and support services during the pandemic. Expanded treatment options and more resources for those suffering from addiction are essential if we are to address the rise in overdoses and ensure those struggling with addiction have a safety net of support during the pandemic.”

By Rohith Kesaraju, Addiction Policy Forum Staff Writer


  1. Addiction Policy Forum, May 2020, “COVID-19 Pandemic Impact on Patients, Families and Individuals in Recovery from Substance Use Disorder.”

  2. Ahmad, FB, Rossen, LM, & Sutton, P. (2020). Provisional drug overdose death counts. National Center for Health Statistics.

  3. Alter, A. & Yeager, C. (2020). “The Consequences of COVID-19 on the Overdose Epidemic: Overdoses Are Increasing.” Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP).

  4. Alter, A. & Yeager, C. (2020). “COVID-19 Impact on the U.S. National Overdose Crisis.” Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program (ODMAP).

  5. NIDA. 2020, July 7. COVID-19: Potential Implications for Individuals with Substance Use Disorders. Retrieved from 4/covid-19-potential-implications-individuals-substance-use-disorders on 2020, August 12

  6. Wan, W. & Long, H. (2020). “'Cries for Help': Drug Overdoses Are Soaring during the Coronavirus Pandemic.” The Washington Post, WP Company,

  7. Longley, J. (2020). “As Overdoses Spike During Coronavirus, Treating Addiction in Prisons and Jails Is a Matter of Life and Death.” American Civil Liberties Union.

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