COVID 19—impact on substance use treatment utilization and provision in South Africa
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Background: The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has impacted people with substance use disorders (SUDs) worldwide. The aim of this study was to explore, changes in the number of SUD treatment episodes provided during the height of the pandemic and, SUD treatment providers’ perceptions of the impact of COVID-19-related restrictions on people with SUDs and the delivery of SUD treatment services in South Africa. Methods: We used administrative data collected as part of the South African Community Epidemiology Network on Drug Use (SACENDU) project to assess whether the number of treatment episodes changed during the height of COVID-19 restrictions. We used data from an online survey of SUD treatment providers to assess providers’ perceptions of the impact of COVID-19 on SUD treatment delivery. Eight seven SUD facilities were recruited to participate in the online survey. Results: Sixty-three organisations (out of a total of 86) participated in the survey, yielding a 73.2% response rate. About half (n = 30; 47.6%) of the sample thought the need for SUD treatment had remained the same or had increased during the COVID-19 lockdown. Half the sample (n = 32; 50.7%) reported decreased availability of SUD services during COVID-19 lockdowns. Participants believed that the lack of services during COVID-19 lockdown impacted negatively on patients that were enrolled in their programmes and on individuals who wished to access the service. Furthermore, changes in service provision seemed to increase patients’ anxiety, exacerbate pre-existing mental health problems and in some cases were thought to precipitate relapse. In addition, patient disengagement and attrition from treatment were thought to have increased during this period. Whilst 47.6% (n = 30) of providers agreed with the value of the alcohol ban, 23.8% (n = 15) of providers thought it had unintended negative consequences. Conclusion: Based on the findings it is evident that SUD treatment services in South Africa have been significantly affected during the COVID-19 pandemic and more severely during the onset of the pandemic. Together with service providers, more effective ways should be sought on how to feasibly expand access to SUD treatment for all South Africans and enhance the country’s preparedness for future health emergencies.
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