Experiences with substance use disorder treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic: Findings from a multistate survey

BACKGROUND: Drug overdoses surged during the COVID-19 pandemic, underscoring the need for expanded and accessible substance use disorder (SUD) treatment. Relatively little is known about the experiences of patients receiving treatment during the pandemic.

METHODS: We worked with 21 harm reduction and drug treatment programs in nine states and the District of Columbia from August 2020 to January 2021. Programs distributed study recruitment cards to clients. Clients responded to the survey by calling a study hotline and providing a unique study identification number. Our survey included detailed questions about use of SUD treatment prior to and since the COVID-19 pandemic. We identified settings where individuals received treatment and, for those treated for opioid use disorder, we examined use of medications for opioid use disorder. Individuals also reported whether they had received telehealth treatment and pandemic related treatment changes (e.g., more take-home methadone). We calculated p-values for differences pre and since COVID-19.

RESULTS: We interviewed 587 individuals of whom 316 (53.8%) were in drug treatment both before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Individuals in treatment reported substantial reductions in in-person service use since the start of the pandemic, including a 27 percentage point reduction (p<.001) in group counseling sessions and 28 percentage point reduction in mutual aid group participation (p<.001). By contrast, individuals reported a 21 percentage point increase in receipt of overdose education (p<.001). Most people receiving medications for opioid use disorder reported taking methadone and had high continuity of treatment (86.1% received methadone pre-COVID and 87.1% since-COVID, p=.71). Almost all reported taking advantage of new policy changes such as counseling by video/phone, increased take-home medication, or fewer urine drug screens. Overall, respondents reported relatively high satisfaction with their treatment and with telehealth adaptations (e.g., 80.2% reported “I’m able to get all the treatment that I need”).

CONCLUSIONS: Accommodations to treatment made under the federal public health emergency appear to have sustained access to treatment in the early months of the pandemic. Since these changes are set to expire after the official public health emergency declaration, further action is needed to meet the ongoing need.

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Full citation:
Saloner B, Krawczyk N, Solomon K, Allen ST, Morris M, Haney K, Sherman SG (2022).
Experiences with substance use disorder treatment during the COVID-19 pandemic: Findings from a multistate survey
International Journal of Drug Policy, 101, 103537. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103537. PMCID: PMC8602971.