Why Those Needing Drug Rehab During Pandemic May Suffer from Neglect

Isolated woman - Covid
Photo by martin-dm/iStockphoto.com

During the coronavirus pandemic, millions of people, perhaps even billions, have suffered financial loss, and isolation. But many of those who are addicted and desperately in need of rehab have suffered a greater measure of neglect. These individuals, which may include those with unstable living situations, often possess few to no resources that would enable them to ride out this pandemic safely or with any comfort.

Calling the societal, governmental and financial chaos we’ve been experiencing disruptive would be understating it, especially in the case of individuals struggling with an overwhelming addiction. Those seeking rehab or even humane support in the first half of 2020 may have found that support in very short supply. Let’s look at some of the ways this shortage has manifested itself.

Using Drugs Alone

Especially since fentanyl began to be found in heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine, many drug users have made it a habit to use drugs in the company of others. That way, there’s someone to help them if they begin to overdose. Some addicted people have always done this but it is essential when your drug supply could be unexpectedly deadly.

Anyone who has concerns about being exposed to coronavirus may retreat from their usual social contacts. They may spend more time at home and alone. They may risk using their drugs while all alone. If they begin to struggle with an overdose, there is no one there to administer naloxone or call emergency services.

Lack of Staffing at Rehabs

In June 2020, National Public Radio reported that some drug rehab facilities are struggling because fewer people are showing up for rehab. The reasons weren’t entirely clear but could include delaying care for fear of exposure to the virus.

With fewer people arriving, there are fewer dollars available to keep staff complements up to the usual level. A survey of members of the National Council for Behavioral Health revealed that nearly 93% of members had cut back their services, with many laying off or furloughing employees. Further consequences of the failure to handle a global health pandemic.

Addicted Lifestyles Create Additional Threats

When an addicted person is living in unstable housing, they are far less likely to be able to control the sanitation of their environments. They may not have access to masks or gloves. If they have a health condition that makes them vulnerable to COVID-19, they may lack the resources to keep that condition under control. They may also not have anywhere to self-quarantine if they get sick.

  “it could be that people with addiction—who are already stigmatized and underserved by the healthcare system—will experience even greater barriers to treatment [due to] COVID-19.”  

Nora Volkow, Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse, observed, “it could be that people with addiction—who are already stigmatized and underserved by the healthcare system—will experience even greater barriers to treatment [due to] COVID-19.

Non-addicted people may also be more careful of associating with an addicted person because of that person’s possible exposure to coronavirus or their susceptibility to illness. This further isolates the addict.

A Story that Illustrates Our Situation

The story of Sara Witter in Colorado, as reported on by the Denver Post, illustrates the struggle an addicted person may be going through. After a battle with addiction and relapse, this 32-year-old woman successfully finished a 30-day detox. She was also engaged to be married.

Once the COVID-19 pandemic arrived, she lost much of her usual support system. She couldn’t go to in-person Narcotics Anonymous meetings or meet with her sponsor. Her follow-up medical visits were rescheduled from every 30 days to every 45 days.

On Easter Sunday, she relapsed again. This time, she overdosed and died. Would she have died if she could have seen her medical provider earlier? We will never know for sure, but one thing is clear, addiction doesn't wait for a pandemic to end.


Reviewed by Claire Pinelli, ICAADC, CCS, LADC, RAS, MCAP



After working in addiction treatment for several years, Ren now travels the country, studying drug trends and writing about addiction in our society. Ren is focused on using his skill as an author and counselor to promote recovery and effective solutions to the drug crisis. Connect with Ren on LinkedIn.