Experiences of people with opioid use disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic: A qualitative study

PLoS One. 2021 Jul 29;16(7):e0255396. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0255396. eCollection 2021.


Aim: To capture pandemic experiences of people with opioid use disorder (OUD) to better inform the programs that serve them.

Design: We designed, conducted, and analyzed semi-structured qualitative interviews using grounded theory. We conducted interviews until theme saturation was reached and we iteratively developed a codebook of emerging themes. Individuals with lived experience of substance use provided feedback at all steps of the study.

Setting: We conducted phone or in-person interviews in compliance with physical distancing and public health regulations in outdoor Vancouver parks or well-ventilated indoor spaces between June to September 2020.

Participants: Using purposive sampling, we recruited participants (n = 19) who were individuals with OUD enrolled in an intensive community outreach program, had visited one of two emergency departments, were over 18, lived within catchment, and were not already receiving opioid agonist therapy.

Measurements: We audio-recorded interviews, which were later transcribed verbatim and checked for accuracy while removing all identifiers. Interviews explored participants' knowledge of COVID-19 and related safety measures, changes to drug use and healthcare services, and community impacts of COVID-19.

Results: One third of participants were women, approximately two thirds had stable housing, and ages ranged between 23 and 59 years old. Participants were knowledgeable on COVID-19 public health measures. Some participants noted that fear decreased social connection and reluctance to help reverse overdoses; others expressed pride in community cohesion during crisis. Several participants mentioned decreased access to housing, harm reduction, and medical care services. Several participants reported using drugs alone more frequently, consuming different or fewer drugs because of supply shortages, or using more drugs to replace lost activities.

Conclusion: COVID-19 had profound effects on the social lives, access to services, and risk-taking behaviour of people with opioid use disorder. Pandemic public health measures must include risk mitigation strategies to maintain access to critical opioid-related services.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Opioid / adverse effects*
  • COVID-19 / epidemiology*
  • Drug Overdose / virology
  • Female
  • Harm Reduction / physiology
  • Health Services
  • Housing
  • Humans
  • Longitudinal Studies
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Opioid-Related Disorders / virology*
  • Pandemics / prevention & control*
  • Public Health / methods
  • Qualitative Research
  • Young Adult


  • Analgesics, Opioid