Ember Conley: Pandemic increases threat of other medical problems

(Luke Ramseth / The Salt Lake Tribune) Banners describing a new opioid awareness campaign in Utah County are plastered across elevator doors, in emergency room lobbies, outside surgery rooms and elsewhere. They encourage doctors and patients to discuss the addictive drugs and their dangers.

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it a multitude of stressors for many people. Skyrocketing unemployment rates, threats of eviction, fear and anxiety over the virus and virtual learning for children have left many people feeling overwhelmed. Experts say that the stress, depression and isolation caused by the pandemic may be worsening the opioid epidemic.

Experts believe that overburdened health care resources and the stressors that addicts face may result in an increased number of opioid overdoses and relapses. Some statistics support this concern; early emergency medical service data shows that naloxone administration increased by 4.5% in March and April 2020. Naloxone is a medication used to save the lives of those who have overdosed on opioids. An estimated 72,000 people died due to opioid overdoses in 2019; this number is expected to increase in 2020.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, many measures were being taken to decrease the number of patients addicted to opioids. Health care training programs to bring awareness of opioid addiction to providers, register patients in drug monitoring programs, comprehensive treatment plans for pain management and co-prescribing naloxone for patients who have a history of addiction helped to decrease the number of opioid deaths and addictions.

When the first wave of coronavirus hit the United States, many providers implemented social distancing and prioritizing patient needs in their offices. This included an increase in the number of doctors who are relying on telehealth for treating patients. However, this increase may prevent them from seeing the signs of opioid addiction in their patients.

Additionally, many insurance providers removed the prior authorization requirement for filling an opioid prescription. While this was designed to help patients get the help they needed without barriers during the pandemic, it has made it easier for addicts to get refills on opioids.

Experts encourage health care professionals to take steps to get ahead of the opioid crisis during the pandemic. Taking alternate steps to pain management, continuing to register patients in drug registries, and prescribing naloxone can all be done while taking social distancing measures.

Doctors should also be on the lookout for patients who show signs of depression and isolation as this may lead to drug misuse. Doing so may help prevent new addictions and may decrease the number of overdoses and deaths due to opioid misuse in the future.

Ember Conley

Ember Conley is a longtime educator and host of “Political Peeks” on Park City Television.