The COVID-19 pandemic and the health of people who use illicit opioids in New York City, the first 12 months

BACKGROUND: Concurrent opioid-related overdose and COVID-19 crises in the U.S. have imposed unprecedented challenges on people who use illicit opioids.

METHODS: Using the experiences of 324 people who use illicit opioids between April 2020 and March 2021, we examined four domains of health and well-being potentially impacted by COVID-19: drug risks and responses, healthcare and related services, material hardship, and mental health. Data were drawn from participants’ completed monthly survey assessments which were grouped into four periods of interest for the unfolding pandemic: April-June 2020, July-October 2020, November-January 2021, and February-March 2021.

RESULTS: A majority of measures in our four domains showed early COVID-19 related impacts, which quickly diminished as people and agencies responded to the pandemic. Difficulty obtaining food was the most frequently reported material hardship and appeared worst in April-June 2020. Over half of the population reported depression in April-June 2020, but this declined over the study period. Some participants reported changes to the heroin supply, including higher prices, lower quality, difficulty finding the drug, and fentanyl contamination. There was no discernable temporal shift in the frequency of use of each substance or the frequency of withdrawal symptoms. Over the study period, the mean number of overdoses per month decreased while the percent of opioid use events at which both a witness and naloxone were present (i.e., protected events) increased. Most participants receiving MOUD experienced an increase in take-home doses.

CONCLUSIONS: Findings speak to the resilience of people who use drugs as a population with disproportionate experience of trauma and crisis and also to the rapid response of NYC health agencies and service providers working with this population. Despite evident signs of adaptability and resilience, the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted some of the unique vulnerabilities of people who use illicit opioids and the need for greater rates of “protected” opioid use and greater availability of wrap-around services to efficiently address the safety, food security, mental health, and treatment needs of the population.

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Full citation:
Bennett AS, Townsend T, Elliott L (2022).
The COVID-19 pandemic and the health of people who use illicit opioids in New York City, the first 12 months
International Journal of Drug Policy, 101, 103554. doi: 10.1016/j.drugpo.2021.103554. PMCID: PMC8632599.