Trends and Characteristics of Buprenorphine-Involved Overdose Deaths Prior to and During the COVID-19 Pandemic

JAMA Netw Open. 2023 Jan 3;6(1):e2251856. doi: 10.1001/jamanetworkopen.2022.51856.


Importance: Buprenorphine remains underused in treating opioid use disorder, despite its effectiveness. During the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US government implemented prescribing flexibilities to support continued access.

Objective: To determine whether buprenorphine-involved overdose deaths changed after implementing these policy changes and highlight characteristics and circumstances of these deaths.

Design, setting, and participants: This cross-sectional study used data from the State Unintentional Drug Overdose Reporting System (SUDORS) to assess overdose deaths in 46 states and the District of Columbia occurring July 2019 to June 2021. Data were analyzed from March 7, 2022, to June 30, 2022.

Main outcomes and measures: Buprenorphine-involved and other opioid-involved overdose deaths were examined. Monthly opioid-involved overdose deaths and the percentage involving buprenorphine were computed to assess trends. Proportions and exact 95% CIs of drug coinvolvement, demographics, and circumstances were calculated by group.

Results: During July 2019 to June 2021, 32 jurisdictions reported 89 111 total overdose deaths and 74 474 opioid-involved overdose deaths, including 1955 buprenorphine-involved overdose deaths, accounting for 2.2% of all drug overdose deaths and 2.6% of opioid-involved overdose deaths. Median (IQR) age was similar for buprenorphine-involved overdose deaths (41 [34-55] years) and other opioid-involved overdose deaths (40 [31-52] years). A higher proportion of buprenorphine-involved overdose decedents, compared with other opioid-involved decedents, were female (36.1% [95% CI, 34.2%-38.2%] vs 29.1% [95% CI, 28.8%-29.4%]), non-Hispanic White (86.1% [95% CI, 84.6%-87.6%] vs 69.4% [95% CI, 69.1%-69.7%]), and residing in rural areas (20.8% [95% CI, 19.1%-22.5%] vs 11.4% [95% CI, 11.2%-11.7%]). Although monthly opioid-involved overdose deaths increased, the proportion involving buprenorphine fluctuated but did not increase during July 2019 to June 2021. Nearly all (92.7% [95% CI, 91.5%-93.7%]) buprenorphine-involved overdose deaths involved at least 1 other drug; higher proportions involved other prescription medications compared with other opioid-involved overdose deaths (eg, anticonvulsants: 18.6% [95% CI, 17.0%-20.3%] vs 5.4% [95% CI, 5.2%-5.5%]) and a lower proportion involved illicitly manufactured fentanyls (50.2% [95% CI, 48.1%-52.3%] vs 85.3% [95% CI, 85.1%-85.5%]). Buprenorphine decedents were more likely to be receiving mental health treatment than other opioid-involved overdose decedents (31.4% [95% CI, 29.3%-33.5%] vs 13.3% [95% CI, 13.1%-13.6%]).

Conclusions and relevance: The findings of this cross-sectional study suggest that actions to facilitate access to buprenorphine-based treatment for opioid use disorder during the COVID-19 pandemic were not associated with an increased proportion of overdose deaths involving buprenorphine. Efforts are needed to expand more equitable and culturally competent access to and provision of buprenorphine-based treatment.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Analgesics, Opioid / therapeutic use
  • Buprenorphine* / therapeutic use
  • COVID-19*
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Drug Overdose* / drug therapy
  • Drug Overdose* / epidemiology
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Opiate Overdose*
  • Opioid-Related Disorders* / drug therapy
  • Opioid-Related Disorders* / epidemiology
  • Pandemics


  • Analgesics, Opioid
  • Buprenorphine