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Substance Use in the COVID-19 Pandemic

Jul 14, 2021

Substance Use in the COVID-19 pandemic

In early 2020, partners in Greater Cincinnati could show progress in their efforts to fight the region's opioid epidemic. Drug overdose deaths in the region had declined by 26% from 2017 to 2019.

Then they were forced to combat a pandemic in the middle of the epidemic.

To help understand how the two health crises are related, the Greater Cincinnati COVID-19 Health Issues Survey asked adults how the pandemic affected their friends' or family members' substance abuse. It found that about 1 in10 Greater Cincinnati adults (8%) reported a friend or family member had experienced a drug overdose during the pandemic, and about 1 in 10 (8%) indicated a friend or family member who had previously struggled with substance use experienced a relapse.

The data are reflected in the attached infographic.

Another measure of the impact of the pandemic on substance use is overdose deaths. Preliminary overdose death rates for 2020 varied across the Greater Cincinnati region. Some counties saw an increase while others saw a decline. Provisional national data released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that overdose deaths in the U.S. increased by 29.4% in 2020, reaching 93,000, the highest annual number ever recorded.

"Stress and isolation are constant challenges for people with substance use disorders," said Sonya Carrico, Senior Program Officer with Interact for Health. "Combine that with reduced access to syringe services programs, emergency care during an overdose and peer support, and it's not surprising that a significant number of people struggled with relapse, or even worse, experienced an overdose during the pandemic."

The Greater Cincinnati COVID-19 Health Issues Survey also found that specific groups experienced higher rates of drug overdose or relapse. People aged 30 to 45, people with less than a high school education and people living in poverty were more likely to report that a friend or family member had experienced an overdose during the pandemic. Those living in Boone, Campbell and Kenton counties, those aged 30-45 and those living in poverty were more likely to have a friend or family member who relapsed.

"Organizations in the region that serve people with substance use disorders have long been willing to try new and innovative ways to help people struggling with addiction access harm reduction and recovery services," Carrico said. "The pandemic was no different. Providers in our region pivoted to offer services via telehealth, drive-through and other methods to reach those in need. Further, the region's first harm reduction supply dispensing machine, operated by Caracole and funded by Interact for Health, launched in February. The program allows individuals to access supplies 24/7 via contactless delivery."

Individuals who are struggling with drug abuse or who are concerned about a family member's substance use can search for treatment providers in their area on or Experts also recommend carrying naloxone to reverse opioid overdoses. Access to naloxone is available by mail order in Ohio from Harm Reduction Ohio and in Indiana from Ship Happens, and in Kentucky from the Bracken County, Northern Kentucky, Three Rivers and other county health departments.

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