February 22, 2021

COVID-19’s Impact on the Opioid Epidemic

Americans have struggled with opioid addiction for a long time, and the pandemic is only making things worse. Since the virus first appeared, more than 40 states have reported increases in opioid fatalities, and some states have seen a steep rise in deaths. In Erie County, New York, for example, 85 people died from overdoses during the first four months of 2020, a 100% increase from the previous year.

Opioid-related deaths comprise a large portion of overall overdose fatalities, which are climbing at a concerning rate. More than 81,000 Americans died from a drug overdose in the 12 months prior to May 2020—the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

Due to the growing seriousness of the situation, healthcare agencies and advocates, including the American Medical Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, are heightening awareness about the role of COVID-19 in fueling the already escalating opioid crisis.

Why Is Coronavirus (COVID-19) Having Such a Big Impact?

Mental Health and COVID-19

The anxiety, stress, and ongoing uncertainty associated with COVID-19 exacerbates many of the mental health issues that can lead to substance abuse. For example, as people wrestle with cascading anxiety about finances, loved ones and their own personal health, they may turn to drugs and alcohol for solace.

Similarly, those battling depression due to grief, isolation, and loneliness may opt to use various substances to dull the pain. On top of that, the lack of opportunities for safe social interaction, group therapy, and other interpersonal connections can amplify the risks of substance abuse, relapse, and overdose.

Workplace Safety and COVID-19

In addition to mental health issues, there are also some workplace dynamics at play. As employers redesign workspaces to maintain safe physical distances and limit the number of employees present in the office or plant, workers may have to take on more responsibilities. Depending on the job, this may also increase the risk of injury.

Likewise, with some work-from-home arrangements, employees may be experiencing more ergonomic issues related to less-than-ideal workspaces. Together, these factors can cause a surge in the use of prescription painkillers, which are highly addictive. If people use these drugs for non-medical purposes, it can lead to abuse and serve as a gateway for more serious opioids, such as illicitly manufactured fentanyl and heroin.

The Compounding Effect of Leftover Painkillers

While the pandemic may be a trigger for opioid use, the presence of unused or expired prescription painkillers in people’s homes and workplaces allows for easy access to these drugs. Six out of 10 patients prescribed opioid painkillers end up having leftover pills, which increases the likelihood the drugs could be used for non-medical purposes.

Unfortunately almost one in five Americans (18%) don’t know how to safely dispose of unused or expired medications, according to a 2019 Stericycle study. Nearly one-third (29%) of patients opt to throw their leftover drugs in the trash, where they can be retrieved for use by someone else. Nearly half (47%) of those surveyed choose to hold on to the drugs because they aren’t sure how to properly dispose of them. The longer an unused prescription is stored within reach of others, the higher the chances the drug may be diverted for improper use.

Even more concerning is the fact that one in ten people have offered or given leftover prescription drugs to a friend or family member. This is particularly worrisome because more than 75% of people who become dependent on opioids report they first started with pills they received from someone they knew.

Strategies for Encouraging Proper Drug Disposal

Although getting a handle on prescription drug disposal has always been important, it is especially critical now, given the negative impacts of COVID-19 and the risks that unused prescription painkillers present. There are several ways that healthcare organizations, community groups, and individuals can encourage and engage in proper drug disposal.

Take advantage of drug take back envelopes.

One of the most convenient ways for the public to get rid of unused or unwanted medications is to use pre-addressed medication mail back envelopes to return drugs for proper disposal. Consumers can send up to eight ounces of pharmaceutical waste in one envelope, sealing it, and dropping it into any USPS mailbox. Pharmacies, hospitals, and other healthcare organizations may want to consider giving these envelopes to patients whenever opioids are prescribed to make the disposal process easier. Organizations should also educate patients about the importance of properly disposing of unused doses to avoid having them end up in the wrong hands.

Set up collection kiosks.

Another way to encourage disposal involves putting pharmaceutical collection kiosks in convenient locations. Public DEA-registered sites within a community, such as police departments, pharmacies, and community health centers, can house these kiosks in secure yet accessible locations onsite. Anyone can anonymously drop off unwanted drugs in the kiosks at any time, making disposal both convenient and private.

Implement a controlled drug disposal program.

Unused opioids in a healthcare setting, such as a hospital or physician office, can present a risk for drug diversion—when someone steals a drug meant for clinical therapy and uses it for personal reasons. To reduce the chances of diversion and ensure proper waste disposal, healthcare organizations should consider implementing a controlled substance waste disposal program.

Key elements of this program could include policies and procedures, staff training and education, and physical controls that limit the likelihood of diversion. One such control is a specially designed container that deactivates wastage resulting from the administration of controlled drugs, such as opioids. These specially designed containers ensure the drug wastage cannot be retrieved once discarded. Although these receptacles are not required by the DEA and are not for the disposal of controlled substances in the facility’s inventory, they do meet the agency’s expectations for effective disposal of controlled substance wastage.

Facilitate Proper Drug Disposal with Stericycle

Learn more about how Stericycle is helping healthcare organizations and communities tackle the opioid crisis by facilitating proper drug disposal.

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