Drug use on the rise amid coronavirus pandemic

Oct 28, 2020

As stress related to the coronavirus remains on the rise, we see the surge of another possible pandemic within this pandemic. A study co-authored by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services and San Diego-based Millennium Health found that drug test positivity rates for substances like cocaine, fentanyl, heroin and methamphetamine have increased during the coronavirus pandemic.

The study, published in the American Medical Association’s JAMA Network publication compared 75,000 urine samples from Nov. 14 to March 12 – the period prior to the coronavirus emergency – to 75,000 specimens in a similar time frame after the emergency was declared.

By virtue of this study, populations tested during the COVID-19 emergency period were more likely to test positive for drug use. The details of which are as follows:

  • 19% more likely to test positive for cocaine
  • 67% more likely to test positive for fentanyl
  • 33% more likely to test positive for heroin
  • 23% more likely to test positive for methamphetamine

However, this isn’t the only research claiming so. Backing this research, Quest Diagnostics data also presented its finding at the PAINWeek Conference in September highlighting that non-prescription fentanyl abuse increased by 35% across a time spanning March 15 to May 16, 2020.

The results herein highlighted that among males, the percentage of those testing positive for the opioid increased from 5.7% to 8.6%, while the rate for females increased from 3.2% to 3.7%. Moreover, the positivity rate increased for all six age groups examined. This included a jump from 10.2% to 13.4% for those between 18 to 24 years old.

This study also extended to other narcotics and substances in connection with non-prescription fentanyl, the details of which are:

  • 89% for amphetamines
  • 48% increase for benzodiazepines
  • 39% increase for opiates
  • 34% increase for cocaine

For this particular study, researchers analyzed 48,938 samples from the pandemic and 823,824 reports from the baseline (dating back to Jan. 1, 2019) with the help of a Quest system known as medMatch. This system determines whether opioids detected in urine samples correspond to prescription records.

HHS Assistant Secretary for Health, Admiral Brett P. GiroirD said, “The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated challenges for millions of Americans with substance use disorders.” Emerging evidence suggests that continued isolation, economic devastation, boredom, decreased access to recovery resources and unemployment have all contributed to this surge.

Moreover, the volume of clinical prescription drug tests has declined from about 12,000 to 15,000 weekly earlier in the year and a mean 13,075 weekly last year, to about 3,800 to 7,300 throughout much of the pandemic.

Attributing the increase to authorities halting drug tests for many Americans during the pandemic, a consultant for Quest and attending anesthesiologist at Englewood Health in New Jersey, Jeffrey Gudin, MD, urged authorities to resume drug testing. “That’s like taking your foot off the gas. I think that’s (drug test halting) had a bad effect on community drug use. Tracking national laboratory data can help yield early signals to our country’s re-emerging drug abuse problem,” he said.

“With frequent reporting of drug testing data from Millennium Health, HHS, along with other federal agencies, can leverage near real-time substance use data to assess emerging trends and enhance programs to better support all who need help.”

Admiral Brett P. GiroirD, HHS Assistant Secretary for Health

While these statistics shed light on an emerging crisis, the onus lies with all of us – the government, support centres and individuals to help take cognizance of the issue and act on it. In the interim, the Quest Diagnostics data team also plans to share the results of a similar analysis about the abuse of other drugs and cannabis during the course of the pandemic.