Opioid overdose-related visits to U.S. emergency departments rose by nearly one-third during the COVID-19 pandemic last year.
That's the key finding in a new analysis of data from 25 emergency departments in Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Rhode Island.
"COVID-19, and the disruptions in every part of our social and work lives, made this situation even harder by increasing the risk of opioid misuse and relapse because people were separated from their social support and normal routines," said senior study author Molly Jeffery, a researcher at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.
The study revealed that opioid overdose-related emergency department visits rose 28.5% last year, compared to 2018 and 2019. The raw numbers in the study were 3,486 in 2020; 3,285 in 2019; and 3,020 in 2018.
The researchers tied opioid overdoses to one in every 313 ER visits last year, compared with one in 400 in the previous two years.
While ER visits related to opioid overdoses rose 10.5% last year, overall ER visits dropped 14%, according to findings published in the Annals of Emergency Medicine, and presented recently at the AcademyHealth annual research meeting.
Preliminary data recently released by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show more than 93,000 opioid overdose deaths in 2020 -- up 29.4% from 2019 and the most ever recorded in a 12-month period in the United States.
"While institutions across the U.S. are keenly aware that opioid misuse is a major health concern, this shows that there is more work to be done, and it provides an opportunity for institutions and policymakers to expand evidence-based treatments and resources," Jeffrey said in a clinic news release.
More than 70% of drug overdose deaths in 2019 involved opioids, according to the CDC, but trends were leveling off before the coronavirus pandemic. However, data reveal a significant reversal in that trend since the start of the pandemic.
Actual opioid overdose rates may be higher than the study suggests, because the number of people who overdose but don't go to the emergency department is likely on the rise, the researchers noted.
In response to the surge, Jeffrey said opioid addiction treatments such as buprenorphine and methadone, and the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone need to be more accessible.
She also noted that telehealth access for psychiatric care increased during the pandemic and has remained high.
"We think this may be an important way to increase the accessibility of care for many people with opioid misuse disorder or addiction," Jeffery said.
The U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse has more about the opioid crisis.
SOURCE: Mayo Clinic, news release, July 28, 2021