Opioid prescriptions among treatment-naive patients dropped and later rebounded during the COVID-19 pandemic. Initiation of buprenorphine stayed low through August 2020. The results of this study were published in JAMA Network Open.

Opioid overdose deaths increased during the pandemic, possibly due to less access to care. The researchers wanted to know how the pandemic affected patients already prescribed opioids as well as new patients.

The researchers used IQVIA’s LRx database for United States prescription data. The data included more than 450 million opioid analgesic prescriptions among more than 90 million patients. The researchers followed the Strengthening the Reporting of Observational Studies in Epidemiology (STROBE) reporting guideline for cross-sectional studies.


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Weekly opioid analgesic prescriptions decreased from March 18 to May 19, 2020. Total morphine equivalents remained flat. Comparing 2020 data to the same time period in 2019, the number of opioid-naive patients filling opioid analgesic prescriptions dropped early in the pandemic, but they rebounded after May 2020.

Limitations include that the survey was not able to track prescriptions not filled through retail pharmacies. The researchers also could not assess whether some of the prescriptions were for alcohol use disorder and not opioid use disorder. In addition, some prescriptions filled may not have been consumed.

Overall, “existing patients taking opioid analgesics experienced little disruption in their supply of such medications during the COVID-19 pandemic,” the researchers stated. “Although they initially received fewer prescriptions, each prescription was for a larger quantity. Therefore, there was little change in total MMEs supplied.”

“These results suggest that the pandemic reversed some of the improvement in access to buprenorphine for OUD that occurred during the past decade,” the researchers concluded. “Improving and maintaining access to treatment should be a priority.”

Disclosure: One study author declared affiliations with biotech, pharmaceutical, and/or device companies. Please see the original reference for a full list of authors’ disclosures. 

Reference

Currie JM, Schnell MK, Schwandt H, Zhang J. Prescribing of opioid analgesics and buprenorphine for opioid use disorder during the COVID-19 pandemicJAMA Netw Open. Published online April 1, 2021. doi:10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2021.6147