Study: COVID-19 Threatens the Incarcerated With Loss of Life-Saving OAT Treatment

For people with opioid usage problem (OUD), getting involved in or staying in an opioid agonist therapy (OAT) program while behind bars or prison has actually never been easy. But incarcerated populaces now deal with a new obstacle: the COVID-19 pandemic intimidates access to treatment programs as well as their life-saving drugs.

Sachini Bandara, PhD, as well as her coworkers at Johns Hopkins, launched an on the internet survey in May to explore the impacts of COVID-19 on OAT programs in jails and prisons. Due to the fact that the centers’ capacity to maintain OAT programs doubts while they face COVID-19, the study concentrated on feasible challenges the programs were encountering, as well as any changes that might have resulted. The survey headed out to wardens, constables, as well as various other leaders at 19 prison as well as jail systems, and the write-up was released on-line August 27 in the Journal of Addiction Medicine.


When looking for therapy for OUD, prisoners of jails and also prisons have typically dealt with huge obstacles– a number of them impossible. Inmates not currently in OAT therapy when sentenced have basically no chance of accessing a program while put behind bars, as well as also inmates already in programs at time of punishing face obstacles to remaining in treatment. The issues jailed populaces now encounter due to the fact that of COVID-19 may be the biggest challenges yet.

Jails and also jails were hotbeds of infection just waiting to occur when COVID-19 broke out. Offered high prices of incarceration, medical solutions not up to a viral difficulty, as well as risky problems– exactly how do you keep physical distance in an incarcerated populace!.?.!?– it was no shock when COVID-19 cases spiked at an early stage.

By April 2020– previously lots of people also recognized the gravity of the COVID situation– records suggested that prisons as well as prisons already housed numerous thousand instances of COVID-19. Yet that engaging number was “likely an underestimate,” the writers kept in mind.

Currently, as facilities continue to grapple with the impacts of COVID-19, their capability to maintain OAT programs shows up uncertain. Jails and also jails are, in the words of the Johns Hopkins authors, “at the epicenter of the [COVID-19] pandemic in the United States.”

The Study

The survey was sent out to jail and jail systems whose programs were starting maintenance therapy with methadone or buprenorphine, or both, prior to COVID-19 struck. Omitted from the survey were systems called “solely supplying OAT for individuals already making use of OAT at arrest or for withdrawal administration.” The goal of the study: describe the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on OAT programs in jails and also jails.

Changes and also Challenges

Eleven study things zeroed in on program changes that might have happened due to the pandemic, and also four items concerned feasible obstacles the programs encountered– obstacles for those enrolled, as well as for those handling the programs. Recipients responded to the initial set of study concerns– those covering changes to the programs– by agreeing or differing with the declarations offered. To assess challenges, receivers chose 1 of 4 items on a Likert range, varying from 1=strongly concur to 5=highly disagree. Information were collected May 5 to 20.


Of the 19 programs called, 16 (84%) reacted: 12 jails as well as 4 jails. Over half of -responders reported they had downsized their OAT programs, as well as more than 80% indicated they had actually launched some OAT individuals early because of COVID-19 risks.

Trick actions are summarized below.

Changes Resulting From COVID-19

Action Number(of 16)Continued to make follow-up area visits for individuals on their release 13
Released some OAT individuals very early (under early release plan) as a result of COVID-19 infection threat 13
Downsized their OAT programs 10
Dealt with challenges in executing physical distancing and/or getting individual safety tools 8
Altered just how they dispensed medication 7

None of the facilities reported terminating their OAT program, or boosting its range.

Obstacles the Programs Face

The numbers below demonstrate how most of the 16 systems spoken to considered the circumstance detailed to be a problem for their program:

Maintaining sufficient medical staff 8 Discovering enough space to maintain physical distancing, while giving medication 8

Providing team with adequate individual safety tools 5
Obtaining sufficient medicines for the OUD program 1

Secret Problems

The need to downsize OAT programs Troubles preserving clinical staff Troubles keeping physical distancing while giving

(For information on the study form and also the modifications and tests the facilities reported, most likely to


The surveys revealed that prisons and also prisons with existing OAT programs have actually stopped their operations in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic– a matter of issue, due to the fact that OAT is understood to lower mortality and also boost treatment end results.

Specifically uneasy: scaling down in prisons and also prisons.

Downsizing throughout the pandemic, the writers showed, “better limits already restricted accessibility to these first-line, opioid use condition treatments” for populaces whose risk of overdose remains to be very raised.

Being scaled down, adding to the issue: community OAT programs. Patients are postponing therapy for numerous factors– worry of infection; taking care of obstacles provided by social distancing requirements; and also monetary pressures that bring about personnel furloughs. Jails as well as prisons that resort to neighborhood programs for drug might discover OAT accessibility even more reduced, as well as post-release overdose threat additional raised.

Mentioned: Capacity for re-entry solutions, area OAT programs, harm decrease services, and also links to housing–“already limited before COVID-19”– are “most likely more threatened by the pandemic.”

On the less-pessimistic side, the authors pointed out that some regulatory constraints have been loosened throughout the pandemic, and also those modifications could be further applied under particular guidance.

Additional Comments

We spoke to Noa Krawczyk, PhD, assistant professor at NYU Grossman School of Medicine, for her thoughts concerning the article, and for pointers on possible options for some troubles facing OUD programs in jails as well as prisons. Dr. Krawczyk, that was not associated with the Bandra study, is a matching author at NYU’s Center for Opioid Epidemiology as well as Policy, as well as lead author on a recently published paper, “Lessons From COVID 19: Are We Finally Ready to Make Opioid Treatment Accessible?”

Dr. Krawczyk commented, “Many of us who deal with the junction of opioid use as well as criminal justice have been worried regarding what will occur to jail and prison-based opioid therapy programs in the middle of the chaos detention centers are experiencing to have the spread of COVID-19. Dr. Bandara’s research study is the initial to offer us a lens into how these treatment programs have been influenced and are adjusting to the existing scenario.

Dr. Krawczyk kept in mind that the research study shows that the programs “are suffering and also decreasing their solutions to some extent” due to the pandemic, yet there has been recent development in carrying out the programs inside prisons as well as prisons. Initiatives are being made “to link folks who are being released to continuous treatment in the community”– which “ought to still be a top priority for these facilities.” She considers this “a crucial and also life-saving effort that need to not be neglected or decreased in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

As an example, she discusses brand-new guidelines enabling telephone-initiated buprenorphine treatment. “Detention facilities can companion with community-based programs to aid attach released prisoners to these programs, so they can begin– or proceed– therapy by means of telephone when launch.”

Another choice: Jails as well as jails can offer naloxone to all prisoners who leave their facility on short notice– an exceptional suggestion, our company believe; particularly so, offered the significant danger prisoners face of overdose fatality as soon as they leave a facility, and for several weeks after.

Wellness divisions can play an essential function, Dr. Krawczyk explained, mentioning as an example a New York City prison re-entry program that “has partnered with a virtual buprenorphine facility in the City, as well as directly refers people released from Rikers Island Jail to begin therapy ‘there,’ by phone.” The New York City Department of Health is also aiding supply methadone to individuals’s homes and also to homeless sanctuaries–“another example of making efforts to ensure the most susceptible keep involved in therapy upon launch.”

In her lately released paper, Dr. Krawczyk pointed out the “alternate truth” brought about by COVID-19. Longer take-home periods for methadone are now considered standard, and buprenorphine initiation is achieved “over an easy phone call.” And she pointed out that efforts to stop spread of COVID-19 in apprehension facilities have actually resulted in the current “extraordinary dismissal of countless low-level drug charges.” Previously, those fees would have caused “the imprisonment of numerous medicine users,” practically reducing them off from reliable treatment.

Just How the Criminal Justice System Could Help Slow the Pandemic

Something frequently ignored: imprisonment of medicine users likewise boosts spread of the infection in the criminal justice system, as well as ultimately, in the general populace. Decreasing admissions to jails as well as jails, as well as enhancing releases, would certainly help reduce the problems facing OAT programs in those facilities, and would decrease COVID-19 spread. A recent magazine from the Prison Policy Initiative shows some particular means that might be done.


COVID-19 has actually resulted in downsizing of OAT therapy programs in jails and also jails. “By endangering accessibility to life-saving medications,” the Bandara research study mentions, “the COVID-19 pandemic poses an extra danger to an already prone and also extremely marginalized population.” The study’s authors ask for efforts to reinforce OAT programs “and also more review the pandemic’s effect on overdose and treatment results.”


Bandara S, Kennedy-Hendricks A, Merritt S, Barry CL, Saloner B. Early impacts of COVID-19 on programs giving drugs for opioid usage problem in jails as well as jails [released online in advance of print, 2020 Aug 27] J Addict Med. 2020; 10.1097/ ADM. 0000000000000718. doi:10.1097/ ADM. 0000000000000718

For Further Reading

Krawczyk N, Fingerhood MI, Agus D. Lessons from COVID 19: Are we ultimately all set to make opioid therapy available? J Subst Abuse Treat. 2020; 117:108074. doi:10.1016/ j.jsat.2020.108074

Wagner P, Widra E. Five Ways the Criminal Justice System Could Slow the Pandemic. March 27, 2020. The Prison Policy Initiative. Accessed September 16, 2020.

Link to the Virtual Buprenorphine Clinic in New York City:

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