Addiction and COVID-19: Study finds link between substance abuse and infection risk

Medical Watch

A new study’s findings have uncovered a link between substance abuse and a higher risk for infection.

It was a global health crisis long before SARS-CoV2. Opioid use disorder. Now researchers from the National Institute on Drug Abuse say those abusing the highly addictive drugs may suffer worse when it comes to COVID-19. Compromised lung and heart function may play a role, but experts say there are other factors at play.

Dr. Henry Swoboda is a emergency medicine physician at  Rush University Medical Center.

“When we look at groups of people who are at higher risk for coronavirus, we’re looking at people who are more and more socially marginalized,” he said. “And I think that is true of our substance using population.”

The study team analyzed millions of non-identifiable electronic medical records from patients across the United States. They found people recently diagnosed with substance use disorders — that included alcohol, cannabis, cocaine and tobacco in addition to opioids – require more care.

“As we’re diagnosing patients with substance use disorders, we always think how do we get them into treatment? How do we counsel them on reducing their risk from their substance use? How do we deal with med complications of substance use?” Swoboda said. “But along with that, now we have to really focus on how do we counsel these patients? Particularly on how do you prevent some of the complications and how do you prevent yourself from getting coronavirus in a way that we may not have been doing as intentionally before.”

Looking at in-patient care, those with addiction problems had a 41 percent hospitalization rate compared to 30 percent for those who did not. And the death rate among patients with substance use disorders was 9.6 percent. That’s compared to 6.6 percent in patients with no addictions.

“These people may be coming from communities where they don’t have the resources to keep themselves healthy,” Swoboda said.

One group in particular, African Americans with a recent opioid use disorder diagnosis, were more than four times more likely to develop COVID-19, compared to whites. Hypertension, diabetes, cardiovascular diseases, and renal diseases, which are risk factors for COVID-19, played a role.

“This paper highlights the need to both screen and treat patients with substance use disorders as part of a strategy to address the coronavirus pandemic,” Swoboda said. “So if we are identifying populations at risk and they have a disease that is modifiable then we should treat that disease.”

Another alarming finding when it comes to substance abuse, opioid overdoses in Cook County are up 50 to 100 percent compared to the same time period last year. Doctors believe it may be due to drug users isolating themselves during the pandemic, using alone with no one around to offer naloxone or help in the case of an overdose.

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