The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic is having a wide range of negative impacts on people affected by a variety of health conditions. Among the hardest hit are individuals struggling with substance use disorders, with recent data indicating that suspected drug-related overdoses and deaths are on the rise across the United States .
One recent analysis of nationwide surveillance data, collected by the federal Overdose Detection Mapping and Application Program, found that suspected drug overdoses rose by 18 percent in March, 29 percent in April, and 42 percent in May compared to the same months in 2019 . Another analysis of state and local mortality data showed that drug-related deaths have increased about 13 percent so far this year, compared to last year .
To find out what may be contributing to this tragic situation and learn what NIH-funded research is doing to help, I recently had a conversation with Dr. Nora Volkow, Director of NIH’s National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Here’s a condensed version of our interview, which took place via videoconference, with both of us linking in from our homes near NIH’s main campus in Bethesda, MD
Collins: Here we are today talking about two public health crises: the crisis of COVID-19 and another crisis that has been going on for quite some time, of drug overdoses and drug deaths. The opioid crisis is difficult in any circumstance, but when you add to it what’s happening right now with the global COVID-19 pandemic, it becomes difficult squared. What has happened during this pandemic?
Volkow: One of the first things that we’ve heard from the communities and the families afflicted by addiction is that the support systems that were there to help people achieve recovery are no longer present. At the same time, it’s been much harder to get access to some of the treatment programs, including hospital emergency departments that can initiate treatment. It’s also been more difficult to access syringe exchange programs and programs, like Narcotics Anonymous, that provide people with a mentor and a social support system that’s fundamental for recovery. Part of recovery is also for individuals to work at re-building their lives, and that too has become much more challenging due to the threat of COVID-19.
All of these aspects are translating into much more stress. And stress, as we know, is one of the factors that leads people to relapse. Stress is also a factor that leads many to increase the consumption of drugs.
Collins: What about the impact of the stay-at-home orders for people who are depending on social networks? You’ve talked about Narcotics Anonymous as an example. But for anybody who’s faced stress challenges, mental health issues, which often coexist with drug problems, what’s the effect of losing those face-to-face social connections?
Volkow: Isolation is difficult for anyone. We depend on others for our wellbeing. The harder our situation, the more vulnerable we are if we don’t have those support systems.
One of the major concerns that we’ve had all along is not just the enormous risk of relapse in many people, but also the risk of suicide—which is always much higher in individuals that are addicted to drugs, particularly to opioids. Indeed, there’s been an increase in the number of suicides associated with the COVID-19 pandemic, including among people that are addicted.
One of the elements we are using to try to overcome that is virtual interactions, like we are having right now. They are fulfilling, certainly for me. And when we’ve surveyed patients and families to see how much these virtual support systems are helping them, we see in many instances that this can be lifesaving. For example, with telehealth, a physician now can prescribe buprenorphine [a treatment medication] without necessarily having to see the individual physically. That’s a major breakthrough because it expands the number of people that can be treated. So, you can provide buprenorphine, and you can also provide support that someone with co-morbid mental illness may need. It’s not the same as physically being with others, but we have to recognize virtual technologies may enable greater equity in providing treatments.
Collins: What’s happened to methadone clinics, a place where people were required to show up in person every day? What’s become of people who depended on those?
Volkow: These spaces are small and there’s not enough staff, so it was very, very high risk. So, one of the positives of COVID-19 is that there was a change in the policy that enabled a methadone clinic to provide take-home methadone for patients, rather than have them come in daily and often at very restricted times, which made it incredibly difficult to comply.
We’re now trying to evaluate the outcomes when people are given take-home methadone. If we can show from evidence that the outcomes are as good as when you go in daily, then we hope that will help to transform these policies permanently.
Collins: So, there’s a silver lining in a few places. Are people who suffer from drug use disorders at increased risk of getting sick from COVID-19?
Volkow: There are many factors that place them at very, very high risk: pharmacological, structural, and social.
Pharmacological, because these drugs negatively affect multiple systems in your body and one of the main targets is the pulmonary system. If your pulmonary system already has pathology because of prior conditions, it’s much easier for the virus to actually infect you and lead to negative outcomes. That pertains to cigarette smoking that produces COPD and pulmonary damage, as well as to very toxic drugs like methamphetamine, which produces pulmonary hypertension; or opioids, which actually depress respiration and produce hypoxia.
You can see that the combination of depressed respiration and having a viral infection that attacks your lungs is not going to be positive. Indeed, it is very likely that that combination lowers the threshold for people to die from overdoses or to die from COVID-19. Drugs can also affect the cardiovascular system and the metabolic system, so all of the factors that we’ve identified as conditions that make you more vulnerable to COVID-19 are affected by drugs.
Then there are structural issues. We’ve already discussed methadone clinics, which put people together in very close spaces. Before COVID-19, one of our main priorities was to bring the treatment of substance use disorder and the screening into the healthcare system. But now the healthcare system is saturated and individuals who’ve gotten their treatment in healthcare systems no longer can access them and that restricts their ability to seek help. In our country, we basically criminalize people who take drugs, and many of them are in jail systems and prisons, where COVID-19 infections can rapidly occur. That is another element where they are at much higher risk.
Also, the number of individuals with substance use disorder who have medical insurance is much less than that of the general population. Not having such insurance is associated with a greater likelihood of having chronic medical conditions, which again is another risk factor for COVID-19. This mixes the structural with the social and, in the social category, you also have stigma.
Stigmatizing individuals with addiction makes them very vulnerable. That’s because, first of all, they are afraid to seek help—they don’t want to be discriminated against. Secondly, if they are in a situation where decisions are being made about providing medical care when resources are limited, that stigma can make them much more vulnerable.
While we are dealing with COVID-19, we cannot ignore the disparities that exist in our society. This pandemic has made it very clear how horrifically disparate health outcomes are between groups of people in our country.
Collins: Nora, you’ve been a real leader on what we might do to try to bring attention to helping people with drug use problems in the criminal justice system. This is often a point where an opportunity for treatment arises, but unfortunately that opportunity is often missed.
Volkow: One of our priorities as we address the opioid crisis is to do research in justice settings in order to be able to identify the models that lead to the best outcomes and to understand how to implement them. This has resulted in the creation of a research network that enables us to connect across the justice and the healthcare systems.
The network that started to emerge before COVID-19 hit has given us an opportunity to get direct information about what’s happening out there. From what we know, because prisons and jails are at such high risk for infection, many states—if not all—are releasing people that are not violent into their communities. Many of them have a substance use disorder. If someone has a long history of a substance use disorder, you cannot release them into the community without a support system, especially in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, where it’s hard to find a job and their families may be rejecting them. You can predict the outcome is going to be very poor, including dying from overdoses.
So, we now have a chance to show that treating these people in their community with appropriate support is going to lead to much better outcomes than leaving them in jail or prison. We are now working with our researchers and with appropriate agencies to figure out how to provide the support that’s necessary as individuals with substance use disorders are released into their communities. It can go both ways. Without support, the outcomes may be very poor. With support, we have the opportunity of transforming the way that we deal with addiction in this country.
Collins: A lot of people may not realize that effective medical treatment for substance use disorders does exist. Treatment has been demonstrated to change lives and improve outcomes over the long term. Still, a lot of folks out there think it’s just hopeless, or, alternatively, if someone just had a little bit more willpower, he or she would be able to take care of this. Please say a little bit about what the current treatment options are, and what the evidence is that they’re needed if you’re going to help somebody recover from a substance use disorder.
Volkow: There are medications for alcoholism and medications for nicotine use disorders. But, by far, the most effective medications are for opioid addiction. It’s very frustrating these medications are not necessarily given to patients—or sometimes even given to patients, but they reject them. I think part of the issue is because of the stigma against the medications. The opioid crisis has helped smooth that out somewhat, so there’s been a greater acceptance of medication. In partnership with the pharmaceutical industry, we have also been working towards developing extended-release formulations that make it much easier for people to take these medications.
In parallel, not just for opioid addiction, we have built up the scientific evidence for behavioral interventions that can improve outcomes for people with substance use disorder in general, if provided concurrently with medical treatment. Recognizing that there is a high risk of comorbidity with mental illness, we also need to provide treatments to address psychiatric disease problems or symptoms, as well as the addiction process. A lot of the work right now is going into creating models that allow this comprehensive treatment, tailored to the needs of the person.
Collins: Where can people who have a family member or friend who’s struggling with substance use disorder in the midst of COVID-19 go to get reliable evidence-based information about treatment programs?
Volkow: They can go to the NIDA website or the website of NIH’s sister agency, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA). One of the problems is that there hasn’t been any way of assessing the quality of treatment for substance use disorder. For many other conditions, you can check the track records of this or that hospital for this or that surgery, but such information does not exist for substance use disorder.
So, we’ve been funding researchers to develop metrics that can predict good outcomes in treatment programs. These metrics can be based on the experiences of people and family that actually took these services, and from the structural characteristics of the program, such as whether they have the evidence-based components shown by research to lead to better outcomes. Researchers are now developing “report cards” for treatment programs that hopefully will do two things: give a family member a sense of how others are rating a program, and, importantly, incentivize treatment programs to do better.
Collins: It would be wonderful to have more objective data for people searching for good answers. Now, let’s talk about HEAL, which stands for Helping to End Addiction Long-term. HEAL is a trans-agency initiative funded by the Congress to support research to address, from multiple different directions, multiple different problems relating to addiction and chronic pain.
How does the HEAL initiative need to adapt to the current health crisis of COVID-19? And what’s your institute doing to try to address some of the significant problems that have emerged in just the last two or three months?
Volkow: COVID-19 has placed HEAL and much of our other research on a very slow trajectory. For example, one program that we were very interested in expanding was the use of the emergency department for the screening of opioid use disorder and the initiation of treatment medications. Another major HEAL program was going to start using the justice system to conduct clinical trials to evaluate the outcomes of different types of medication for opioid use disorder. They are all basically on hold.
Collins: Nora, what’s your hope going forward over the next few months? What can NIH do to try to address this situation in the most effective way possible?
Volkow: I am optimistic because I can see how science can help to solve extremely challenging problems. I think this is the time for science to shine again and show us that methodologies aimed at gathering objective data to develop optimal solutions can resolve problems. But the question is: how long will it take?
I’ve been very impressed about how these devastating circumstances have led us to question the pace at which we moved projects in the past. I think it is wonderful that we have recognized that time is a luxury, that we need to move rapidly. With respect to the issue of substance use disorders, I would hope that, as we as a nation become aware of the suffering that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting on all of us, we become more empathetic to the suffering of others.
And as I see the movements across the country speaking out against injustice, I would hope that this will also extend to diseases that have been stigmatized. We need to modify our stigma so we provide the same level of importance to treating these diseases and supporting people afflicted by them.
I think that science will prevail. What is going to be important is that we also allow for our humanity in order to use that science in a way that everyone can take advantage of it.
Collins: That’s a wonderful way to wind up because I think the calling to bring together science and compassion is what drives all of us who have the privilege of working at NIH, the largest supporter of biomedical research in the world. Our purpose is clear: to find answers for all of these difficult problems that cause suffering and early death for people who deserve better.
Our vision is set on helping the most vulnerable populations right now. COVID-19 has pointed us toward that, and our discussion about those who suffer from substance use disorders also focuses on that.
I’m always one who likes to talk about hope, because, after all, that’s what we get up in the morning thinking about at NIH. We hope that our research efforts are going to lead to a new vaccine or a new treatment for COVID-19, or a better way of helping people who have been afflicted with drug problems.
Yet one of my favorite sayings is that “hope is a privilege that attaches to action.” This means that you can’t just say “Well, I hope for something,” unless you attach that hope to concrete actions you’re going to take.
Nora, your institute has been living that out. You don’t just hope that something good will happen to turn the tide of this terrible crisis of suffering and death from opioid overdoses, you’re all about action. So, thank you for your incredible dedication to the science and to the people whom we are trying to serve.
Volkow: Francis, thanks very much for your support.
Drug overdoses continue to take far too many lives, driven primarily by the opioid crisis (though other drugs, such as methamphetamine and cocaine, are also major concerns). While NIH’s Helping to End Addiction Long-term (HEAL) Initiative is taking steps to address this terrible crisis, new findings serve as another wake-up call that young people battling opioid addiction need a lot more assistance to get back on the right track.
In a study of more than 3,600 individuals, aged 13-22, who survived an opioid overdose, an NIH-funded team found that only about one-third received any kind of follow-up addiction treatment . Even more troubling, less than 2 percent of these young people received the gold standard approach of medication treatment.
The findings reported in JAMA Pediatrics come from Rachel Alinsky, an adolescent medicine and addiction medicine fellow at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, Baltimore. She saw first-hand the devastating toll that opioids are taking on our youth.
Alinsky also knew that nationally more than 4,000 fatal opioid overdoses occurred in people between the ages of 15 and 24 in 2016 . Likewise, rates of nonfatal opioid overdoses for teens and young adults also have been escalating, leading to more than 7,000 hospitalizations and about 28,000 emergency department visits in 2015 alone .
In the latest study, Alinsky wanted to find out whether young people who overdose receive timely treatment to help prevent another life-threatening emergency. According to our best evidence-based guidelines, timely treatment for youth with an opioid addiction should include medication, ideally along with behavioral interventions.
That’s because opioid addiction rewires the brain—will power alone is simply not sufficient to achieve and sustain recovery. After one overdose, the risk of dying from another one rises dramatically. So, it is critical to get those who survived an overdose into effective treatment right away.
Alinsky and her team dove into the best-available dataset, consisting of data on more than 4 million mostly low-income adolescents and young adults who’d been enrolled in Medicaid for at least six months in 16 states. The sample included 3,606 individuals who’d been seen by a doctor and diagnosed with opioid poisoning. A little over half of them were female; most were non-Hispanic whites.
Heroin accounted for about a quarter of those overdoses. The rest involved other opioids, most often prescription painkillers. However, the researchers note that some overdoses attributed to heroin might have been caused by the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl. The use of fentanyl, often mixed with heroin, was on the rise in the study’s final years, but it was rarely included in drug tests at the time.
Less than 20 percent of young people in the sample received a diagnosis of opioid use disorder, or a problematic pattern of opioid use resulting in impairment or distress. What’s more, in the month following an overdose, few received the current standard for addiction treatment, which should include behavioral therapy and treatment with one of three drugs: buprenorphine, naltrexone, or methadone.
Drilling a little deeper into the study’s findings:
• 68.9 percent did not receive addiction treatment of any kind. • 29.3 percent received behavioral health services alone. • Only 1.9 percent received one of three approved medications for opioid use disorder.
It’s been estimated previously that teens and young adults are one-tenth as likely as adults 25 years and older to get the recommended treatment for opioid use disorder . How can that be? The researchers suggest that one factor might be inexperience among pediatricians in diagnosing and treating opioid addiction. They also note that, even when the problem is recognized, doctors sometimes struggle to take the next step and connect young people with addiction treatment facilities that are equipped to provide the needed treatment to adolescents.
As this new study shows, interventions designed to link teens and young adults with the needed recovery treatment and care are desperately needed. As we continue to move forward in tackling this terrible crisis through the NIH’s HEAL Initiative and other efforts, finding ways to overcome such systemic barriers and best engage our youth in treatment, including medication, will be essential.