Last updated: October 2, 2023
A Quest Diagnostics Health Trends study released this month in a publication by Population Health Management indicates the illicit use of fentanyl, heroin, and nonprescribed opiates is increasing by double digits. The unsettling discovery is likely related to the impact of COVID-19.
This is despite the fact that employee drug testing declined rapidly during the pandemic as business owners laid-off employees en masse, eliminated drug testing temporarily due to the expense, or, sadly, were forced to close their doors.
Furthermore, clinical drug testing began to fall by as much as 70% per week between March and mid-May of this year.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has created the perfect storm for a rise in substance use disorders and other forms of prescription and illicit drug misuse. Stress, job losses, and depression compounded with isolation and a lack of access to health services can trigger prescription medication overuse, illicit drug use, or relapses,” said co-author Harvey W. Kaufman, M.D., Senior Medical Director, Head of Health Trends Research Program, Quest Diagnostics.
It’s anything but perfect
The onset of the pandemic brought fear, job loss, anxiety, and stress. It’s just a fact that many people deal with these types of situations by turning to turn to drugs and alcohol for relief.
The fact that there was a rise in positivity rates when actual testing dropped drastically is very concerning.
Of course, the 70% drop in clinical testing indicated that fewer patients were being screened for drug misuse during the first few months of the pandemic.
Limited access to healthcare played a role in the drop-off as health care providers tightened the reins to battle the spread of COVID-19. But, in turn, it’s suspected that part of this figure is due to patients putting off seeking medical care of their own volition during the lockdowns.
Sadly, the data investigators theorized that high-risk patients may not have continued to seek care due to a relapse.
Despite the drop in the number of patient specimens submitted for testing, the rate didn’t change overall. Drug testing results of clinical patients proved that one in two patients showed signs of abusing either illicit or prescription drugs both before and after the onset of the pandemic.
Add to that the number of citizens turning to drugs to self-medicate in a time of extreme uncertainty and the double-digit increase may just be the tip of the iceberg.
It really isn’t possible to gauge the actual numbers here.
The study compared testing positivity rates for two distinct periods of time.
The study contains data from the following periods:
- January 1 through March 14, 2020 (pre-pandemic)
- March 15 through May 16, 2020 (during the pandemic)
Test results showed a 35% increase in drug positivity for non-prescribed fentanyl, a 44% increase in heroin misuse, and a 10% increase in non-prescribed opiates in the second round of data.
A cocktail for disaster
The study revealed there was a massive surge in positivity rates combining non-prescribed fentanyl with other drugs.
Specimens also contained:
- Amphetamines—an increase of 89%
- Benzodiazepines—an increase of 48%
- Cocaine—an increase of 34%
- Opiates—an increase of 39%
This is due in part to the fact that users can unknowingly ingest fentanyl—a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times stronger than morphine—when drug dealers mix it with other drugs such as methamphetamine, cocaine, or heroin.
They do it to maximize their profit because fentanyl is cheap and, regretfully, easy to come by. It definitely increases the volume of their product. It intensifies the user’s experience too encouraging repeat business.
Of course, dealers don’t always—if ever at all—reveal the fact that they’ve created a “cocktail” and added fentanyl to their product. The word is out on the street though prompting addicts to take precautions. They keep Narcan on hand if possible. The nasal spray halts the body’s reaction to an opioid overdose for a short time.
Addicts use a buddy system so someone can get help if there’s an overdose.
Some city governments, in an effort to combat the alarming increase in opioid-related overdoses, are giving Narcan away in an effort to save lives. In fact, it’s become a common practice nationwide that started prior to the pandemic.
Fentanyl—used illicitly—by men increased by 51% between mid-March and Mid-May 2020. The drug was illegally used by more women too. However, the positivity rate only increased by 16% over the same time period.
Heroin and opioid use skyrocket
Fentanyl use may have risen so dramatically due to the fact that many users don’t realize it’s mixed into their drug of choice.
That’s because even addicts usually shy away from knowingly using this highly toxic drug. Coming into contact with even a few grains of the substance could potentially kill an adult human being.
However, the increased use of heroin and opioids is intentional on the part of the user. Relapsing during a time of crisis is common among recovering addicts. Others use to take the edge off. They don’t consider that they are putting themselves at great risk of forming an addiction.
Overall, the findings of the study indicate “that non-prescribed use of the drugs most responsible for the overdose epidemic in recent years has increased greatly since the start of the pandemic.”
That may not seem like an astounding fact, but it’s certainly a grim one.
The number of opioid-related overdose deaths—due to the plague of addiction that has consumed our country for two decades now—had decreased for the first time since the epidemic’s onset in 2018.
Now, it’s increasing by double digits.
Fight for the cure
We can’t give up the fight.
Drug addiction destroys the life of the abuser. It destroys the lives of their family—and friends.
We must continue to educate Americans on the dangers of drug abuse.
If you have a drug-free program in place—for that matter, even if you don’t—put the spotlight on drug abuse. Provide your employees with the opportunity to learn what the dangers are. Moreover, they’ll learn the ways drug use can negatively affect their lives forever.
However, if you don’t have a drug-testing program in place, you should consider implementing one.
Employers who drug test employees reap the benefits. Workplace accidents decrease, employees are tardy or absent less often, and productivity increases.
Moreover, many states offer savings in workers’ comp premiums if employers participate in a drug-free program.
As your employees return to work, be on the lookout for signs of drug abuse. For instance, if you catch someone “nodding”—not dozing—nodding. You would immediately suspect that heroin could be the cause.
Nipping the problem in the bud is their best hope for success. If you have an opportunity to be a catalyst in that—take it!