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New Study Finds Increases in Fentanyl and Heroin Use During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Updated: Oct 16, 2022

A new study, conducted by Quest Diagnostics, finds that opioid use, including fentanyl, heroin, and non-prescribed opioids, has increased significantly during the COVID-19 pandemic. The study also indicates that polydrug use has risen considerably. Researchers discussed factors that may be contributing to this increase from the availability of health care and support services to the stress and loneliness associated with the pandemic.

Since March 2020, efforts to mitigate the effects of the ongoing drug epidemic have been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. A recommendation issued by the CDC to postpone medical prevention services not available through telehealth has unintentionally led to a drop in clinical drug testing rates for drug and alcohol misuse, resulting in many clinicians continuing to prescribe medications without assessing for potential misuse or other drug use. This study examined drug testing results from January 1, 2019 to March 14, 2020 (when the pandemic was declared a national emergency) and from March 15-May 16, 2020 to analyze how the COVID-19 pandemic interacts with the drug epidemic.

Study Findings

  1. Decrease in Clinical Drug Testing – Rates of clinical drug testing declined by 70% during the first week of stay-at-home orders and increased in following weeks. However, weekly rates were consistently 45% below the 2019 average. Substance use disorder (SUD) patients and those receiving medications for addiction treatment (MAT) showed the most significant decline in testing during the pandemic.

  1. Changes in drug use and polydrug use – Although overall drug misuse slightly decreased during the COVID-19 pandemic, the change in positivity rate varied by type of drug. The drugs with the most notable increased positivity rate were fentanyl (35%), heroin (44%), opiates (10%), and marijuana (4%). Other drugs such as cocaine and amphetamines showed no significant changes. Additionally, the positivity rate of fentanyl combined with other drugs also increased.


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