Newswise — WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. – Sept. 7, 2022 – The COVID-19 pandemic led to the highest drug overdose death toll since 2017. According to the CDC, there was a 29% increase in drug overdose deaths in the U.S. in 2020, and nearly 75% of those deaths involved an opioid. The pandemic’s disruptions to health care access, loss of support systems, social isolation and staggering unemployment only exacerbated the problem, especially in communities already marginalized by economic and social vulnerabilities.

With the support of a five-year, $3.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), researchers will study how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted opioid use disorder and how the COVID-19 response and mitigation policies impact health outcomes, especially in vulnerable populations.

The study is co-led by Meredith Adams, M.D., associate professor of anesthesiology at Wake Forest University School of Medicine, and Elaine Hill, Ph.D., associate professor of health economics at the University of Rochester.

“We are all impacted by the pandemic, but there are big differences in outcomes,” Adams said. “It’s important to understand what the differentiators are to better support our communities.”

The team of researchers will examine federal, state and commercially insured population claims data and electronic health data to capture nearly half of the U.S. population from before the pandemic to test the hypothesis that social and economic vulnerabilities, as well as economic side effects of the pandemic, escalate the prevalence of opioid use disorder.

The study is part of a larger NIH initiative led by University of Michigan called the Social, Behavioral and Economic Research on COVID Consortium, which was designed to examine how COVID-19 has influenced a variety of social factors such as education, substance use and health care access. All projects within the initiative have the common goal of understanding the pandemic’s impact on underserved populations.

“Once we fully understand how the COVID-19 pandemic impacted our social, economic and health care systems, we will hopefully design more effective strategies and interventions for people with opioid use disorder,” Adams said.