Early innovations in opioid use disorder treatment and harm reduction during the COVID-19 pandemic: A scoping review

BACKGROUND: The COVID-19 pandemic has exerted a significant toll on the lives of people who use opioids (PWUOs). At the same time, more flexible regulations around provision of opioid use disorder (OUD) services have led to new opportunities for facilitating access to services for PWUOs. In the current scoping review, we describe new services and service modifications implemented by treatment and harm reduction programs serving PWUO, and discuss implications for policy and practice.

METHODS: Literature searches were conducted within PubMed, LitCovid, Embase, and PsycInfo for English-language studies published in 2020 that describe a particular program, service, or intervention aimed at facilitating access to OUD treatment and/or harm reduction services during the COVID-19 pandemic. Abstracts were independently screened by two reviewers. Relevant studies were reviewed in full and those that met inclusion criteria underwent final data extraction and synthesis (n = 25). We used a narrative synthesis approach to identify major themes around key service modifications and innovations implemented across programs serving PWUO.

RESULTS: Reviewed OUD treatment and harm reduction services spanned five continents and a range of settings from substance use treatment to street outreach programs. Innovative service modifications to adapt to COVID-19 circumstances primarily involved expanded use of telehealth services (e.g., telemedicine visits for buprenorphine, virtual individual or group therapy sessions, provision of donated or publicly available phones), increased take-home medication allowances for methadone and buprenorphine, expanded uptake of long-acting opioid medications (e.g. extended-release buprenorphine and naltrexone), home delivery of services (e.g. MOUD, naloxone and urine drug screening), outreach and makeshift services for delivering MOUD and naloxone, and provision of a safe supply of opioids.

CONCLUSIONS: The COVID-19 pandemic has posed multiple challenges for PWUOs, while simultaneously accelerating innovations in policies, care models, and technologies to lower thresholds for life-saving treatment and harm reduction services. Such innovations highlight novel patient-centered and feasible approaches to mitigating OUD related harms. Further studies are needed to assess the long-term impact of these approaches and inform policies that improve access to care for PWUOs.

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Full citation:
Krawczyk N, Fawole A, Yang J, Tofighi B (2021).
Early innovations in opioid use disorder treatment and harm reduction during the COVID-19 pandemic: A scoping review
Addiction Science and Clinical Practice, 16 (1), 68. doi: 10.1186/s13722-021-00275-1. PMCID: PMC8590133.