Lockdowns, social distancing, layoffs, and uncertainty about the future are well-documented effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Research also shows higher rates of substance use and misuse.

A May 2020 report by Well Being Trust and The Robert Graham Center says, “The growing epidemic of ‘deaths of despair’ is increasing due to the pandemic—as many as 75,000 more people will die from drug or alcohol misuse and suicide.”

Note that over 20 million people in the United States suffer from a substance use disorder. And, even before the pandemic started, drug testing positivity rates among U.S. workers had reached a 16-year high.

Quest Diagnostics (a clinical laboratory) says in a news release that the drug testing positivity rate among U.S. workers in 2019 reached its highest rate (4.5%) since 2003.

Further, “In addition to overall increases in workforce drug positives, specific regions of the United States, particularly the Midwest, experienced dramatic increases in positivity for cocaine and methamphetamine as well as marijuana.”

A Quest Diagnostics official affirmed that workplace drug positivity rates were “trending in the wrong direction” prior to COVID-19, and the “enormous strain” triggered by the pandemic could accelerate this unsettling trend.

Based on COVID-19-era analyses, this unsettling trend is indeed accelerating.

According to DISA Global Solutions (a drug screening company) the positivity rate for the four most commonly tested drugs surged during January 2020 and May 2020. Specifically, the positivity rate for:

  • Cocaine increased 51.72%
  • Marijuana increased 21.57%
  • Amphetamine increased 16.67%
  • Opiates increased 5.19%

The DISA website confirms, “2019 saw a rise in amphetamine and marijuana positivity rates, but the COVID pandemic has accelerated the problem. Additionally, cocaine was decreasing from May 2019 to the end of the year, but this crisis has caused it to boomerang back up significantly.”

Moreover, Millennial Health (a drug testing laboratory) conducted an analysis of over 500,000 urine drug tests for nonprescribed fentanyl, cocaine, heroin, and methamphetamine. They found that “all four drugs had significant increases in positivity” since COVID-19 was declared a national emergency in March 2020. The results show:

  • 31.94% increase for nonprescribed fentanyl
  • 19.96% increase for methamphetamine
  • 12.53% increase for heroin
  • 10.06% increase for cocaine

Additionally, AmericanMarijuana.org crawled over 1 million comments and threads on Reddit.com to determine how the COVID-19 pandemic has affected substance use patterns among Americans. The findings (for January 2020 to July 2020) reveal:

  • The top three most-used substances during COVID-19 are marijuana, alcohol, and hallucinogens.
  • March, April, and May all saw a remarkable jump in drug use. With COVID-19 containment measures (such as lockdowns) starting in March, the pandemic and the soaring drug use seem to be connected.
  • Drug use scaled back a little during June, but climbed again in July.
  • Many more people tried to quit drugs in July (compared to June), even though substance use was booming that month.

Substance use disorders and the pandemic have proven to be formidable foes.

The National Safety Council (NSC) says, “At least 30 states are reporting spikes in fatal opioid overdoses and ongoing concern about mental illness or substance use disorders, all in connection with COVID-19.”

Consequently, the NSC warns employers to “prepare for an increase in substance misuse — one that could be a serious threat to worker safety, and cost tens of thousands in productivity losses, absenteeism and presenteeism, and worker's compensation claims.”

Employers can, for example:

  • Implement a drug testing program, as this is vital to maintaining a safe and healthy workplace.
  • Develop clear, consistent policies on drug use in the workplace, including for remote workers.
  • Offer support, such as employee assistance programs, to help employees and their families deal with substance use disorders and mental health issues.
  • Give employees a list of government-funded COVID-19 helplines that they can contact for direction, resources, and information. You can also point them to SAMHSA’s Disaster Distress Helpline.
  • Train managers so they’ll be equipped to handle the complex dynamics of the pandemic and workplace drug use.

Importantly, employers must stay committed to promoting a drug-free workplace.