A study by researchers at Princeton University has identified a series of specific ways in which the COVID-19 pandemic has been associated with an increase in opioid overdose deaths.
Their findings were published this month by JAMA Network Open.
Specifically, the researchers noted that:
- Americans already taking opioids prior to the pandemic did not experience a disruption in their supply.
- Patients not taking opioids for pain management were less likely to receive a new prescription in the pandemic’s early months, but that trend eventually reversed.
- Fewer new patients entered into medication-assisted treatment.
Researchers reviewed patient data in a national database with more than 90 million prescriptions for opioid analgesics and buprenorphine dating back to 2018. They then studied two periods: the early months of the pandemic (March to May 2020) and a later period (May to September 2020), when normal activities began to resume.
In the pandemic’s early months, weekly opioid pain medication prescriptions fell, but the amount of medications dispensed remained flat—a sign that providers were increasing amounts prescribed per prescription. Meanwhile, prescribing patterns for existing patients receiving buprenorphine saw little to no change, but the number of new patients receiving MAT dropped by almost a quarter, and by August had only rebounded to 90% of predicted levels.
Based on their calculations, about 37,000 fewer individuals received buprenorphine treatment for opioid addiction because of the pandemic.
“Medication-assisted treatment has been shown to prevent overdose deaths, so disruptions in access to treatment have likely played a role in increasing overdose deaths during the pandemic,” study lead author Janet Currie, a professor of economics and public affairs and co-director of Princeton’s Center for Health and Wellbeing, said in a release.