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Anita Cservenka, Ph.D.

There is no doubt we are experiencing some of the greatest challenges we have ever faced in our lifetimes as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. As a psychologist who has researched addiction for more than a decade, I am especially concerned about the virus’s effects on substance use rates and the health disparities that are created and exacerbated by the pandemic. Recent studies suggest a multitude of ways that COVID-19 and alcohol use are intertwined, and I’d like to focus on four ways that the combination of the two creates an especially concerning the situation.

First, several countries saw a jump in alcohol sales at the time of COVID-19 lockdown and multiple recent reports across the globe suggest that the stress and isolation tied to lockdowns, loss of employment, caring for children and family members at home, and lack of social interaction may significantly increase alcohol use rates. For example, early data suggests that women may be particularly vulnerable to distress-induced alcohol use, while another study found that just one week after lockdown, alcohol consumption increased among college students at one Midwestern university. Since we know that alcohol affects multiple organ systems and that hazardous drinking increases risk for traffic accidents, unsafe sex, and alcohol use disorder, it’s more critical than ever for public health officials to educate their communities about the negative consequences of excessive drinking.

Second, a recent publication suggests that alcohol use may actually increase risk for contracting COVID-19, as heavy alcohol users’ lungs are more susceptible to viral infection. Thus, individuals diagnosed with an alcohol use disorder may be disproportionately infected and impacted by the virus. This leads me to a third area of concern, which is that individuals with an alcohol use disorder who acquire COVID-19 may be more likely to experience complications from the virus due to the combined effect of both alcohol and viral infection on organ functioning. Furthermore, COVID-19 poses an additional risk to patients with alcohol use disorder who already have multiple co-occurring health conditions and are thus immunocompromised.

Finally, one of the most significant ways COVID-19 is positioned to create and exacerbate health disparities is by reducing access to treatment for individuals with an alcohol use disorder. Both medication-based and therapy-based treatment, including support groups like Alcoholics Anonymous, may become challenging to access during coronavirus-induced shutdowns.

According to providers at two Central Oregon addiction treatment and counseling facilities, the pandemic is already impacting patients with alcohol use disorder in the region.

Prof. Kathy Biles, who teaches in OSU-Cascades’ counseling program, spoke with directors Karen Ludwig from New Priorities and Monika Castaneda from Best Care, who said counselors and recovery mentors are working hard to stay connected with clients via phone calls and Zoom meetings.

“While outpatient and individual counseling programs changed to telehealth, support meetings, such as AA, have had to close their meeting doors, or go online,” Biles said. “Looking at the listings for twelve-step and other support meetings, only about one-quarter of the daily meetings are taking place online via Zoom.”

Cancellation of meetings or lack of available technology to attend online meetings has left many patients without access to physicians, counselors, and support groups, which can increase the likelihood of relapse to alcohol use, especially when the stress of the pandemic may further heighten vulnerability for using alcohol as a coping mechanism.

It is clear that the multifold effects of COVID-19 on alcohol use, health disparities, and treatment access are complex and deserve heightened attention due to the increased risk for negative health outcomes during the pandemic. The public must be informed of the long-term impacts of hazardous drinking on individual and community health, and treatment providers should be supported in the critical work they do to maintain care for clients when faced with increasingly complex challenges.

Anita Cservenka, Ph.D., is an assistant professor at Oregon State University's School of Psychological Science in Corvallis. 

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