Substance Use and Overdose Deaths Increase During COVID-19 Pandemic

As outlined in a previous post, early studies during the COVID-19 pandemic showed substance use increasing as a result of stress, anxiety/depression and boredom.

While we can’t yet determine the full impact of COVID on substance use, available data continues to show an alarming increase in usage and overdose deaths.

Masked woman sitting alone during pandemic

Increased Positivity Rates

Data from Quest Diagnostics shows increased positivity rates for high-risk drugs and dangerous drug combinations during COVID.

  • Positivity rates for non-prescribed fentanyl increased by 35% during COVID compared to the baseline period.
  • Significant increases were also seen for heroin (44% increase), opiates (10% increase) and marijuana (4% increase).

Increased Overdose Deaths

As of August, the CDC provisional drug overdose death count had reported 85,516 annual overdose deaths in 2020.

  • There were 68,371 annual overdose deaths reported in August of 2019. This is a more than 25% increase in overdose deaths year-over-year.
  • States with the largest year-over-year increase include Louisiana, Arizona, Colorado, Mississippi, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia, South Carolina and Florida (all with increases over 40% year-over-year).
  • Opioids, psychostimulants with abuse potential (including drugs such as methamphetamines), cocaine and heroine were the most prevalent drugs seen in 2020 overdose deaths (as of August).

Decreased Drug Testing

While substance use increased during the pandemic, there was a significant decrease in clinical drug testing as stay-at-home orders began, employers transitioned to remote work, and individuals aimed to minimize in-clinic testing to avoid potential exposure.

  • Quest Diagnostics reported a 70% decline in weekly clinical drug tests in March of 2020.

The increase in substance use and lack of drug & alcohol testing and resources is concerning for individual wellbeing and safety.

Recommendations for Employers

The National Safety Council is encouraging employers to prioritize employee stress, emotional and mental health both.

“Employers must prepare for an increase in substance misuse – one that could be a serious threat to worker safety, and cost tens of thousands in productivity losses, absenteeism and presenteeism, and worker’s compensation claims if employees do not plan ahead. Employers are in a unique position to spot signs and symptoms of misuse early.”

#1 Reasonable Suspicion

Ensure your company has developed reasonable-suspicion protocol and that all supervisors have up-to-date reasonable suspicion training to identify impairment and properly manage reasonable suspicion situations.

If you’re interested in enrolling your supervisors in TEAM’s online reasonable suspicion training, learn more on our website and sign-up today.

#2 Remind Employees of Employee Assistance Programs and Resources (EAPs)

Research has found that employee assistance resources are often underutilized because employees don’t know the resources available to them or how to access the program.

Educate employees on your organization’s EAP and the available resources for them and their families.

#3 Maintain Drug and Alcohol Testing Programs

As research shows, continuing drug and alcohol testing during this time is extremely important.

To decrease potential exposure and stress on employees:

Simple, reliable background checks, delivered fast.

Get new employees onboarded ASAP without sacrificing the safety or compliance of your business.