High-risk groups and COVID 19; who is being left out of the conversation

People who have a substance use disorder are still people and need to be treated as such, especially if we want to beat COVID.

Many people are at risk of potentially contracting COVID, but did you know that those who have a substance use disorder are also among the group of individuals who are at a larger risk due to their weak immune systems? This group has been pushed to the sidelines for years, and now is the time to make that change and show them that we do care about their wellbeing, especially during a time in which COVID is still rampant.    

Substance use disorder, as defined by the Mayo Clinic, is “a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior and leads to an inability to control the use of a legal or illegal drug or medication … When you’re addicted, you may continue using the drug despite the harm it causes.” 

Drugs, in this case, can be anything from meth and cocaine to legal drugs like alcohol, marijuana or nicotine. Any one of these substances can lead someone into a substance use disorder and stressors can be a major trigger for someone with these disorders. With the unexpected and continued stress of the pandemic along with the lockdowns, many individuals with substance use disorders are at a higher risk of relapse.

The risk for those affected by substance use disorders is not just in a potential relapse, but also in an increased risk of infection from the virus. In her article “New Evidence on Substance Use Disorders and COVID-19 Susceptibility,” Dr. Nora Volkow explains that the reason for the increased risk of infection is because “many kinds of chronic substance use harm or weaken the body in ways that make people who use substances more vulnerable to infection.” 

It is well documented that people who have compromised immune systems are at higher risk of contracting COVID. In her article, Dr. Volkow discusses a study that showed an “analysis of electronic health record data from more than 73 million patients at 360 U.S. hospitals, of whom 7.5 million (10.3% of the sample) had an SUD [Substance Use Disorder] and 12,030 had COVID-19.” 

Essentially, out of the 7.5 million people who have a SUD, 12,030 contracted COVID at some point. And while this might not seem like a substantial amount, it is 12,030 people who were at high risk and potentially didn’t know that they were.

Yet, with all of this evidence mainstream media is not emphasizing the risk for these individuals, the focus remains on the elderly and health care workers. We don’t hear about it because many see those who have any type of substance use issue as a burden to society, and suggest they did what they did to themselves, so why should we have to pick them back up? When, in reality, these individuals need access to help and the support of others around them.

Programs in Tacoma, like The Tacoma Needle Exchange, help those who use substances stay healthy and safe. 

On their website there is a message that reads “Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have made the difficult decision to temporarily close all of our fixed sites. During this time, we will be available for no contact deliveries Monday-Friday, by appointment only. Limited to 1x/month for each person.” This greatly affects people who rely on this organization to get clean needles. This access is important in order to minimize the risk of disease through sharing needles.

The CDC Director, Robert Redfield, stated “The disruption to daily life due to the COVID-19 pandemic has hit those with substance use disorder hard. As we continue the fight to end this pandemic, it’s important to not lose sight of different groups being affected in other ways. We need to take care of people suffering from unintended consequences.” 

As a society, we need to stop looking at people who have substance use disorder as an issue in society, if they got the help that they needed and the support these numbers would be less.

If you or someone you know needs help with substance use go to https://www.samhsa.gov/find-help/national-helpline for support and get your questions answered.