Managing Addiction and Recovery During the COVID-19 Pandemic

The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is contributing to mounting stress and anxiety across nearly every population, but it can be especially dangerous for people recovering from addiction.

COVID-19 could hit populations with substance use disorders particularly hard, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). Because it affects the lungs, COVID-19 can pose a serious threat to people who vape or smoke any drugs, including tobacco. Populations that use opioids and/or methamphetamines also are vulnerable because those drugs adversely affect respiratory and pulmonary health.

NIDA has found that individuals with a substance use disorder are more likely to experience homelessness or incarceration than those in the general population. Homeless people and those in jail or prison are especially at risk of contracting COVID-19.

Finally, while social distancing is critical to maintain health, it can jeopardize recovery and substance abuse treatment.

“When people are active in their addiction, one of the things they do is they isolate. And one of the things that we work on in recovery is getting people connected to the community,” says Robyn Jordan, MD, PhD, director of the Addiction Medicine program at UNC Medical Center. “So what we’re asking people to do now is to go into isolation, which is exactly what we ask them not to do during recovery.”

People may have turned to alcohol and other drugs in the first place because they were lonely and had difficulty relating to others. As an addiction progresses, it’s common for a person to struggle to interact with other people, which leads to more isolation and loneliness. The foundation of recovery is built on connecting those struggling with addiction with a network of support.

“We advocate for people to go to NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings and AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings where they can be in person with other people,” Dr. Jordan says.

If you or someone you love is in recovery or currently struggles with addiction, these tips from Dr. Jordan can help in this difficult time.

1. Find an online support group.

AA, NA and other 12-step recovery programs offer online support groups and opportunities to connect with sponsors. Hundreds of online AA meetings are available all over the world, connecting people in some of the hardest-hit areas of the COVID-19 outbreak.

These programs use digital platforms such as Zoom, Google Hangouts or other free conference call software. Some groups also keep in touch by phone, email or social media.

2. Stay connected with your healthcare provider.

Reach out to your addiction healthcare team to see what support they can offer right now.

Our group is reaching out and contacting patients on a regular basis,” Dr. Jordan says. “We’re doing our best to increase our level of support at a time when we have fewer in-person resources to offer.”

Be sure to work with your provider to obtain medications or refills you may need, and ask if you can visit via virtual appointments. If you do not have an addiction healthcare provider, ask your primary care provider.

3. Take extra precautions if you have an active substance use disorder.

If you or a loved one has an active substance use disorder—meaning you are still using and not in recovery—don’t share supplies such as needles, pipes, vapes or bongs.

“We strongly advocate for people to use clean needles and to never reuse needles,” Dr. Jordan says. “Now everyone is staying home, and there’s less access to syringe exchanges, and we have a lot of concern that people are going to be reusing needles at home, which will cause infection rates to go way up.”

These life-threatening infections include endocarditis, which is an infection of the inner lining of the heart, and osteomyelitis, which is a bone infection that can spread into the bloodstream.

Finally, do not use drugs such as opioids when you are alone, especially if injecting fentanyl or heroin as these can be fatal. If you are alone, call or FaceTime with a friend, and consider stocking up on naloxone, medication designed to rapidly reverse opioid overdose.

If you are with someone who overdoses, call 911 immediately. If you actively use, have relapsed or need recovery assistance, talk to your healthcare provider or contact the UNC Alcohol and Substance Abuse Outpatient Treatment Program at (984) 974-6320.