Last updated: June 5, 2023
Researchers at the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA) and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio analyzed 580,000 electronic health records of fully vaccinated people in the United States. They wanted to know if addicts, as well as others who “casually” use drugs, are at an increased risk of contracting COVID.
One of the lead authors of the study, NIDA Director, Nora D. Volkow, M.D., said, “First and foremost, vaccination is highly effective for people with substance use disorders, and the overall risk of COVID-19 among vaccinated people with substance use disorders is very low.” She went on to explain that people with a substance use disorder must still be encouraged to receive COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. All the while realizing, however, that this group is at an increased risk.
The threat has lessened, but…
Analyses conducted during the early stages of the pandemic indicated that people with substance use disorders—another term used to describe addicts—were at increased risk of COVID infection. Moreover, they were more likely to have a severe case that required hospitalization and could result in death.
Now that vaccines are widely available for those aged 12 and older, the risk of COVID has greatly reduced. Still, there are many reported instances of those who have had the vaccines and subsequential booster shots becoming ill. People were still catching the virus. However, the data didn’t specifically include people suffering from addiction.
People who consistently use drugs are immunocompromised due to both their drug use and co-occurring diseases. Therefore, hypothesizing that this segment of the population is at high risk of breakthrough COVID infections after being vaccinated seemed reasonable.
They dove in to determine if they were correct.
Combing through the data
The group obtained available electronic data regarding people in the United States with and without substance abuse disorders who were fully vaccinated against COVID-19. They analyzed 580,000 results of people who received vaccinations between the dates of December 1, 2020, and August 14, 2021. The search criteria excluded people who had the virus before the vaccination.
The research group discovered that the risk of breakthrough infections was markedly higher in people suffering from substance abuse disorder than in those without. The numbers among addicts were exactly 7% higher compared to 3.6% of vaccinated people without substance abuse disorders, as a matter of fact.
Breaking it down further
There was a slight variance with substance abuse disorder results due to lung-related issues. The results showed that 6.8% of them were related to tobacco use and 7.8% reported cannabis use. Moreover, findings showed that cannabis users didn’t experience a lower risk after controlling the known risk factors.
Those who smoke tobacco or marijuana were still 55% more likely to experience breakthrough infections. That’s alarming because these patients tended to be younger people with fewer co-occurring health conditions. There is a hypothesis supporting this information as well. Factors such as the adverse effects of cannabis on lung and immune function are likely the contributing factors here.
In addition, the study concluded that the increased risk of breakthrough COVID infections in “people with substance use disorders was primarily due to co-occurring diseases and adverse socioeconomic characteristics.” Of course, this is due in part to unsafe social contact. Going maskless, for instance. Another huge contributor can be sharing drug paraphernalia or marijuana cigarettes.
This makes addicts more susceptible to catching the virus. Once it sets in, the outcome is likely to be more severe. In fact, 22.5% of those addicts with breakthrough infections required hospitalization and 1.7% died during the study period.
This compares with 1.6% of people without substance use disorders suffering from a breakthrough COVID infection who required hospitalization. Ultimately, 0.5% of them died.
Commitment is key
The overall results emphasize the fact that even though the vaccine is essential and effective in fighting COVID, some of the same risk factors still apply to breakthrough infections—especially among people who suffer from substance use disorder. Physicians and medical personnel should continue to monitor this group of patients and evaluate the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines and the long-term effects of the virus.
As a rule, addicts live unhealthy lifestyles. They focus on making sure they have their drug of choice above all else. That includes food and housing.
Studies will continue regarding the effects of COVID-19. We understand that continued vigilance is the key to progress. We won’t give up the watch. One day, soon we hope, we’ll get COVID-19 totally under control. Both here in the United States and around the world.
You can count on it.