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Study Finds Pandemic Likely Worsened Opioid Crisis in NC County

Researchers observed a sharp increase in overdose-related EMS runs and use of the overdose reversal medication naloxone starting in March 2020

RESEARCH TRIANGLE PARK, N.C. — A new study from researchers at RTI International, the North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University, and the National Institute of Mental Health has found that indicators used to measure severity of the opioid crisis increased sharply in Guilford County, North Carolina, during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggesting the pandemic may have exacerbated the opioid epidemic.

Specifically, the research team found that the occurrence of Emergency Medical Services (EMS) runs for opioid-related overdoses increased 37.4% in a 29-week period beginning March 10, 2020 (the date of NC’s COVID-19 state of emergency declaration), compared to the preceding 29 weeks. Cases requiring EMS to administer naloxone, a life-saving opioid overdose reversal medication, increased by 57.8% and calls that required multiple naloxone administrations increased 84.8% in the same comparison of timeframes.

Overdoses requiring multiple uses of naloxone are inferred by researchers to be more severe than those only requiring one administration of the medication.

“To our knowledge, this is the first study to show an increase in opioid overdoses and the severity of opioid overdoses,” said Dalia Khoury, Ph.D., a behavioral health researcher at RTI who led the study. “Based on our analysis, it appears the pandemic made a bad situation even worse, at least in Guilford County. It is worth continuing to explore how and why the pandemic had this effect on the opioid crisis in other counties, states, as well as nationally.”

The researchers outline possible reasons for the pandemic’s association with an increased incidence and severity of opioid overdoses, including social isolation, a decrease in tolerance caused by limited availability of opioids during the pandemic, and reduced access to treatment, but assert that more research is needed.

“More broadly, our study reaffirms the value in sharing data between public health and safety, research, community, and academic organizations to help track the opioid crisis,” added Khoury.

View the full study