I was just reading “Harvard Health Blog,” a Harvard medical school publication. The blog called “A Tale of Two Epidemics” is written by a physician who himself is a recovering opiate addict. The epidemics he speaks of are, of course, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing opioid epidemic – a perfect storm in many ways.
The author, who works in a lower-income medical clinic on the East Coast, tells the story of a population of people (addicts) who come with a list of personal, medical, financial and social issues that render them particularly vulnerable to epidemic number two – COVID-19. The vulnerabilities are nothing new, and the convergence of the two avalanches points out many things we already knew.
People with opioid addiction issues are more likely to have associated medical issues, less likely to be employed or have insurance (for example, access to good medical care), more likely to be or have been incarcerated, factors that the author calls “social determinants of health” … nothing new here except the added health burden of the pandemic.
The author also talks about the problem of isolation versus the need for social distancing. It’s common knowledge that addiction is a disease made worse by isolation. The physical needs for social distance make more difficult the togetherness and social support needed for recovery. The isolation also makes taking opioids alone, an already risky behavior, much more likely. Using alone limits the possibility of someone present to recognize overdose symptoms early enough to intervene, which increases the likelihood of dying from the overdose.
It has become harder to get addiction treatment and to refill prescriptions partly because of stay-at-home restrictions and partly because the medical resources are being funneled toward the needs of COVID-19 patients. The general anxiety that many of us feel regarding the current state of affairs only adds to the concerns of the newly recovering addict and makes it more difficult emotionally – when it otherwise would have been difficult enough.
I hope that we can pay close attention to the specific needs of some of our most vulnerable people.
• Rick Atwater is a licensed clinical professional counselor. He hosts the weekly radio show “Straight Stuff on Addictions” at recoveryinternetradio.com. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.