Conference Coverage

Substance use disorders increase risk for death from COVID-19



MADRID, Spain – Individuals with substance use disorders are at higher risk of being infected by and dying from COVID-19 – even if they are fully vaccinated – compared with the general population. Such are the findings of a line of research led by Mexican psychiatrist Nora Volkow, MD, director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA).

A pioneer in the use of brain imaging to investigate how substance use affects brain functions and one of Time magazine’s “Top 100 People Who Shape Our World,” she led the Inaugural Conference at the XXXI Congress of the Spanish Society of Clinical Pharmacology “Drugs and Actions During the Pandemic.” Dr. Volkow spoke about the effects that the current health crisis has had on drug use and the social challenges that arose from lockdowns. She also presented and discussed the results of studies being conducted at NIDA that “are aimed at reviewing what we’ve learned and what the consequences of COVID-19 have been with respect to substance abuse disorder.”

As Dr. Volkow pointed out, drugs affect much more than just the brain. “In particular, the heart, the lungs, the immune system – all of these are significantly harmed by substances like tobacco, alcohol, cocaine, and methamphetamine. This is why, since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve been worried about seeing what consequences SARS-CoV-2 was going to have on users of these substances, especially in light of the great toll this disease takes on the respiratory system and the vascular system.”

Pulmonary ‘predisposition’ and race

Dr. Volkow and her team launched several studies to get a more thorough understanding of the link between substance abuse disorders and poor COVID-19 prognoses. One of them was based on analyses from electronic health records in the United States. The purpose was to determine COVID-19 risk and outcomes in patients based on the type of use disorder (for example, alcohol, opioid, cannabis, cocaine).

“The results showed that regardless of the drug type, all users of these substances had both a higher risk of being infected by COVID-19 and a higher death rate in comparison with the rest of the population,” said Dr. Volkow. “This surprised us, because there’s no evidence that drugs themselves make the virus more infectious. However, what the results did clearly indicate to us was that using these substances was associated with behavior that put these individuals at a greater risk for infection,” Dr. Volkow explained.

“In addition,” she continued, “using, for example, tobacco or cannabis causes inflammation in the lungs. It seems that, as a result, they end up being more vulnerable to infection by COVID. And this has consequences, above all, in terms of mortality.”

Another finding was that, among patients with substance use disorders, race had the largest effect on COVID risk. “From the very start, we saw that, compared with White individuals, Black individuals showed a much higher risk of not only getting COVID, but also dying from it,” said Dr. Volkow. “Therefore, on the one hand, our data show that drug users are more vulnerable to COVID-19 and, on the other hand, they reflect that within this group, Black individuals are even more vulnerable.”

In her presentation, Dr. Volkow drew particular attention to the impact that social surroundings have on these patients and the decisive role they played in terms of vulnerability. “It’s a very complex issue, what with the various factors at play: family, social environment. ... A person living in an at-risk situation can more easily get drugs or even prescription medication, which can also be abused.”

The psychiatrist stressed that when it comes to addictive disorders (and related questions such as prevention, treatment, and social reintegration), one of the most crucial factors has to do with the individual’s social support structures. “The studies also brought to light the role that social interaction has as an inhibitory factor with regard to drug use,” said Dr. Volkow. “And indeed, adequate adherence to treatment requires that the necessary support systems be maintained.”

In the context of the pandemic, this social aspect was also key, especially concerning the high death rate among substance use disorder patients with COVID-19. “There are very significant social determinants, such as the stigma associated with these groups – a stigma that makes these individuals more likely to hesitate to seek out treatment for diseases that may be starting to take hold, in this case COVID-19.”

On that note, Dr. Volkow emphasized the importance of treating drug addicts as though they had a chronic disease in need of treatment. “In fact, the prevalence of pathologies such as hypertension, diabetes, cancer, and dementia is much higher in these individuals than in the general population,” she said. “However, this isn’t widely known. The data reflect that not only the prevalence of these diseases, but also the severity of the symptoms, is higher, and this has a lot to do with these individuals’ reticence when it comes to reaching out for medical care. Added to that are the effects of their economic situation and other factors, such as stress (which can trigger a relapse), lack of ready access to medications, and limited access to community support or other sources of social connection.”


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