Story at a glance

  • Opioid misuse and overdose is an ongoing epidemic in the U.S.
  • A study shows that hospital emergency department visits for opioid overdose were up in 2020 compared to the two previous years.
  • Experts say there needs to be wider availability of treatment.

During the pandemic, we’ve seen access to health care decrease and various health problems deepen as a result. A study published in Annals of Emergency Medicine shows that hospital visits for opioid overdose increased by about 28 percent in the U.S. in 2020 compared to 2018 and 2019. Emergency department (ED) visits overall decreased in 2020 by about 14 percent. Health experts are concerned that the actual rate of opioid overdoses could be higher.

“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 Molly Jeffery, a researcher in the Mayo Clinic Robert D. and Patricia E. Kern Center for the Science of Health Care Delivery and senior author of the paper, in a press release.

For the paper, Jeffery and collaborators looked at 25 EDs in six states — Alabama, Colorado, Connecticut, North Carolina, Massachusetts and Rhode Island — from January 2018 through December 2020. Opioid-related overdose visits were at 3,285 and 3,020 in 2019 and 2018, respectively, and in 2020 it increased to 3,486.


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There was a dip in ED visits early in the pandemic, and experts think there may be a percentage of people who experienced overdoses but didn’t choose to visit the ED. This suggests the overdose rate may be higher than the data suggests.

“In the absence of comprehensive, real-time national surveillance data, our results offer evidence that the increases in nonfatal opioid overdose rates are not isolated to specific communities,” the authors said.

The team recommends wider access to treatments for opioid misuse. For example, buprenorphine and methadone are synthetic derivatives of opioids approved for medication-assisted treatment of opioid misuse. These produce similar effects to opioids at low dosages and help to diminish the physical dependency. There’s also naloxone, which is an opioid overdose reversal drug.

“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,” said Jeffery.


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Published on Jul 31, 2021