Non-Prescription Fentanyl Abuse Up During Pandemic

Abuse of non-prescription fentanyl was up during the first 2 months of the pandemic shutdown over earlier in the year and 2019, according to an analysis of Quest Diagnostics data.

As presented at the virtual PAINWeek conference, the study showed that non-prescription fentanyl abuse increased by 35% across a time spanning March 15 to May 16, 2020 (P<0.01).

Among males, the percentage of those positive for the opioid increased from 5.7% to 8.6%, while the rate for females increased from 3.2% to 3.7%. The positivity rate increased for all six age groups examined — including a jump from 10.2% to 13.4% for those 18 to 24 years old, reported Jeffrey Gudin, MD, a consultant for Quest and attending anesthesiologist at Englewood Health in New Jersey.

Abuse of other narcotics and substances in concert with non-prescription fentanyl also increased by 89% for amphetamines, 48% for benzodiazepines, 39% for opiates, and 34% for cocaine (P<0.01 for all). Cocaine use along with non-prescription fentanyl increased from 47.6% to 63.6%, for example, while amphetamine co-use increased from 4.6% to 8.7%.

Data for the analysis came from a Quest system called medMATCH that determines whether opioids detected in urine samples correspond to prescription records.

“In times of crisis, people will resort to drugs and alcohol to help,” Gudin said.

He attributed the increases to authorities halting drug tests for many Americans during the pandemic. “That’s like taking your foot off the gas,” he said. “I think that’s had a bad effect on community drug use.”

Gudin urged authorities to resume drug testing, calling it the most effective method for limiting and monitoring drug use.

Clinical prescription drug test volume declined from about 12,000 to 15,000 weekly earlier in the year and a mean 13,075 weekly last year, to about 3,800 to 7,300 throughout much of the pandemic.

“Tracking national laboratory data can help yield early signals to our country’s re-emerging drug abuse problem,” Gudin and colleagues wrote in their PAINWeek poster.

When asked if he believed opioid abuse had indeed reemerged as a major problem during the pandemic, Gudin said, “There’s certainly data that suggest it.”

For the study, the researchers analyzed medMATCH reports for 48,938 samples from the pandemic and 823,824 records from the baseline (dating to Jan. 1, 2019), noting that the baseline period was much longer than the pandemic period.

The non-prescription opioid was likely street fentanyl, Gudin said, adding that the team plans to share results of a similar analysis soon about abuse of other drugs and cannabis during the pandemic.

  • Ryan Basen reports for MedPage’s enterprise & investigative team. He has worked as a journalist for more than a decade, earning national and state honors for his investigative work. He often writes about issues concerning the practice and business of medicine. Follow

Disclosures

Quest Diagnostics paid salaries and consulting fees for the researchers.