How COVID-19 Has Impacted the Opioid Crisis

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The COVID-19 pandemic altered the way we live and interact with those around us. For many, the changes that occurred between 2019 and 2020 mark the separation of two different worlds.

As the pandemic continues, the one we live in now includes higher rates of drug use, relapses, and overdose deaths than ever before.

How did it happen? Let’s take a look at what the current research is telling us, and where to go from here.

3 Ways COVID-19 Impacted the Opioid Crisis

Most experts had already declared an opioid epidemic years prior to the current global pandemic.

The number of drug overdose deaths between 2018 and 2019 quadrupled since 1999 (1). But by 2021—a year into COVID-19—there were more than 105,000 overdose deaths, with opioids accounting for more than 80,000 of the fatalities (2).

Here are a few reasons why:

Loss of Support and Reduced Access to Care

The “beginning” of COVID-19 in the United States was marked with shutdowns, layoffs, and household isolation. Suddenly, recovery became that much harder for those suffering from addiction.

One of the best avenues to sobriety is access to supportive care at rehab centers, community meetings, and more. Many who needed that access faced temporary suspension of support groups, disruption in care at treatment facilities, or fear of catching the virus upon leaving the house (3). This left many people vulnerable to continued drug use—and potential overdose—when they needed access to support and care the most.


If addiction were a fire, then loneliness would be its fuel.

That’s the general consensus surrounding research on the connection between loneliness and addiction. The same data reveals generation Z (ages 18-22) is the loneliest generation, and those numbers were before pandemic-induced isolation (4). The findings are concerning, as loneliness is a precursor to not only depression and physical illness, but also a trigger for drug use (5).

Youths, teens, and young adults suddenly faced a lack of routine, structure, socialization, and support—all preventative measures against addiction risk. Experts think this caused many individuals to turn to substances like opioids for comfort or emotional escape.

Increased Stress

On top of loneliness and reduced access to care, stress levels skyrocketed in individuals of all ages across the nation. The following scenarios became a reality for many Americans:

  • Families navigated job loss and the financial stress tied to it.
  • Businesses that were integral to communities shut down when they could no longer make ends meet.
  • Some parents had to choose between working outside of the home to support their families or avoiding careers that would expose their loved ones to COVID-19—even if it meant losing an income.
  • Youths and teens lost friendships, routine, and extracurricular activities.

How did these scenarios lead to higher rates of drug use and opioid overdose? Experts report economic stress as a major precipitator in harmful drug use (6). It not only increases the chances of individuals doing drugs, but also doing them in more riskier ways. During the pandemic, there were reports of more people experimenting with drugs while alone, on the streets, and in other “less safe” situations.

Thus, overdose rates, and deaths due to opioids, increased as a result.

Loved One Facing Addiction? Here’s Where to Find Help.

COVID-19 has caused an uptick in the already prevalent opioid crisis. If you or a loved one has turned to opioids, help is available.

View our recovery resources to learn about organizations working with youths and young adults to prevent and recover from opioid addiction.

About GameChanger

Created in 2018, GameChanger is a student-powered movement with focus on substance misuse prevention among youths. We connect students, educators, and communities with education, training, coaching, and support services to prevent opioid and other drug use before it starts.

Visit our resources to learn more.


  1. Wide-ranging online data for epidemiologic research (WONDER). Atlanta, GA: CDC, National Center for Health Statistics; 2020. Available at
  2. U.S. Overdose Deaths in 2021 Increased Half as Much as in 2020—But Are Still Up 15%. CDC. May 11 2022. Accessed from:
  3. COVID-19 and the opioid crisis: When a pandemic and an epidemic collide. Weiner, Stacy. Association of American Medical Colleges. Accessed from:
  4. CIGNA U.S. LONELINESS INDEX. Accessed from:
  5. How Loneliness Fuels Addiction. Recovery Centers of America. Accessed from:
  6. “It’s Really, Truly Everywhere”: How the Opioid Crisis Worsened with COVID-19. Seervai, Shanoor. The Commonwealth Fund. June 4, 2021. Accessed from:
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