How emergency department visits for substance use disorders have evolved during the early COVID-19 pandemic

Jesse M. Pines*, Mark S. Zocchi, Bernard S. Black, Jestin N. Carlson, Pablo Celedon, Ali Moghtaderi, Arvind Venkat

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

19 Scopus citations


Objective: Higher opioid overdoses and drug use have reportedly occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic. We provide evidence on how emergency department (ED) visits for substance use disorders (SUD) changed in the early pandemic period. Methods: Using retrospective data from January–July 2020 compared to January–July 2019, we calculated weekly 2020/2019 visit ratios for opioid-related, alcohol-related, other drug–related disorders, and all non-COVID-19 visits. We assess how this ratio as well as overall visit numbers changed after the mid-March 2020 onset of general pandemic restrictions. Results: In 4.5 million ED visits in 2020 and 2019 to 108 EDs in 18 U.S. states, SUD visits were higher in early 2020 compared to 2019. During the peak-pandemic restriction period (March 13–July 31), non-COVID-19, non-SUD visits fell by approximately 45% early on, and then partly recovered with an average decline of 33% relative to 2019 levels. Visits for opioid-related, alcohol-related, and other drug–related disorders also declined, although less sharply, with an average drop of 17%, which was similar across SUD types. The visit ratios for 2020/2019 partially or fully recovered later in our sample period, depending on SUD type, but did not exceed early-2020 levels. However, substantial variation occurred across SUD types and across states. SUD visit declines were most prominent in the 65+ age group, except for alcohol-related visits where trends were similar across ages. SUD visits arriving by ambulance declined less or increased relative to self-transport visits, and ED deaths were rare. Conclusions: The 2020/2019 ratios of SUD ED visits fell substantially early in the COVID-19 pandemic, yet less than non-SUD, non-COVID ED visits. SUD ED visit ratios partly or fully recovered to 2019 levels by early June 2020, but did not exceed early 2020 ratios.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Article number108391
JournalJournal of Substance Abuse Treatment
StatePublished - Oct 2021


  • Alcohol
  • COVID-19
  • Drug use
  • Emergency department
  • Opioids
  • Overdose
  • Substance use

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Psychiatry and Mental health
  • Clinical Psychology
  • Phychiatric Mental Health
  • Medicine (miscellaneous)


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