How to Protect Yourself from Covid-19
People with substance use disorder (SUD) are at higher risk for Covid and many other medical conditions. Time to fight back.
By Lantie Jorandby, MD, Chief Medical Officer, Lakeview Health
As Covid-19 continues its assault on the U.S. even as we move well into 2021, a scary statistic continues to haunt all of us in the addiction treatment field: People with substance use disorder (SUD) are at significantly greater risk of getting the deadly virus.
Here I will explain some of the key reasons for this increased risk, then make the case for why this should not stop you from seeking treatment. (As a rule, the best time to get into rehab is always now.) I will also touch on some other conditions that SUD puts people at higher risk for. Finally, I’ll mention what you or your loved one need to consider when searching for an addiction treatment center during Covid and beyond.
Here’s why those with SUD have a higher Covid risk
Several things are involved here, and they don’t all need to be present to increase a person’s risk. Substance abuse often compromises the body’s immune system, which creates a dangerous welcome mat for serious medical conditions like Covid and other viruses and infections. For alcohol users, excessive drinking can damage internal organs and the immune system. Drug users, especially those addicted to opioids, often have decreased lung capacity. All those factors make people with SUD more susceptible to Covid—and other health conditions.
Alongside the physical dangers of substance abuse are the social ones. Research by the National Institute of Drug Abuse (NIDA) shows that those with SUD often have decreased access to healthcare, a greater incidence of housing insecurity, and a greater likelihood of incarceration. These are all higher-risk scenarios for contracting COVID-19.
Know this: SUD raises the risk of other medical conditions also
In a landmark study reported by NIDA in 2017 among 90,000-plus people in northern California, SUD was associated with a higher risk of 19 major medical illnesses.
Study findings include:
- Among those who had SUDs, 57 percent had alcohol use disorder, 15 percent had cannabis use disorder, and 13 percent had opioid use disorder. Most (68.5 percent) had two or more SUDs.
- The four illnesses with the most elevated risk among those with SUD were chronic pain, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), congestive heart failure, and hepatitis C.
- Those with SUDs also had a higher overall mortality risk (risk of dying) than those without SUDS. Mortality risk was highest among those with opioid use disorder.
- Other research has shown this silver lining: Medical conditions that are exacerbated by substance use tend to improve as substance use diminishes. 1
I don’t include these study results to scare people with SUDs or their family or friends. I do it to illustrate that SUD is a serious condition that comes with a host of complications, and we need to fight it with everything we’ve got.
The best time to seek treatment is (still) NOW
To be clear, when someone has SUD and is not being treated for it, that’s the time to seek treatment. But with Covid continuing to be with us, the timing is even more appropriate, for two big reasons.
You already know about the increased Covid risk if you have SUD, so that’s reason number 1. Reason number 2 relates to reason number 1, and it’s this: Despite the worries people have about treatment centers being risky places for Covid, the opposite is generally true. That is, with the safety procedures and protocols most treatment centers now have in place, your risk of getting Covid is likely lower at a treatment center than in your home environment.
When you’re seeking treatment, ask about this
Again, know that the vast majority of rehabs are safe—likely safer than your home environment, because they are so much more controlled and monitored. But there are several things to ask about to ensure a treatment center’s safety from viruses and infections, and I list them below. Feel free to use this list when you inquire. Key questions include:
- What infection control protocols do you have in place?
- Can you handle medical cases if people get sick with Covid or other infections?
- Do you have an onsite doctor or nurse who is trained in internal medicine?
- Do you have a place to quarantine people when they first arrive at rehab?
- Do you test for Covid? If so, do you use the immuno-assay test, also known as the swab test? (Note: This is the most accurate method; antibody tests are less accurate.)
- How often are residents and staff given temperature and vital sign checks? (Ideally this should be done daily until the Covid pandemic passes.)
- Do you provide telehealth therapy when patients step down to outpatient care? (This allows for safer social distancing.)
Here’s a plus for why the winter months are always a good time to seek treatment. Even if you live in the south where it’s warmer, the winter months are the time of year when seasonal affective disorder (SAD) normally kicks in for people who are prone to it, and a lot of people are prone to it. The key factor is not cold weather, but rather fewer hours of sunlight. SAD is a type of depression that can take away your energy, make you feel moody, and be quite debilitating. Don’t just brush it off as the “winter blues”! In combination with addiction, SAD can be deadly, so please pay attention to how you are feeling, and take action. Getting into rehab may be the smartest move you can make during wintertime.
Many people are shying away from residential care even when they know it’s what they need. They’re worried they’ll get the virus. We understand that concern, and it’s why we added so many protocols at Lakeview Health to help keep our residents and employees safe and healthy.
Addiction Treatment at Lakeview Health