NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WKRN) — The COVID-19 pandemic is already having an impact on the ongoing crisis of opioid abuse across the country and in Tennessee.

Dr. Robert Pack, executive director of East Tennessee State University’s Addiction Science Center, is moderating a panel discussion about the topic Friday.

“In Tennessee, we’re one of a handful of states who did not decrease in overdose deaths last year so we still have a lot of work to do,” Dr. Pack said. He also serves as associate dean for academic affairs at ETSU’s College of Public Health.

In many cases, people with opioid use disorder get treated with medications such as methadone and Dr. Pack said the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to disrupt access to that medication. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the DEA made provisions for better access in mid-March. For instance, they’re making TeleHealth available for clinics that provide these medications and are giving some flexibility in the use of methadone.

“When people don’t have access to medication for opioid use disorder if they’re engaged in treatment then they can relapse on illicit opioids and those are particularly dangerous as most people know at this time,” Dr. Pack said.

He added that another challenge is possible long term impacts because the pandemic has made it harder to keep track of how opioid abusers are doing.

“People with opioid use disorder and other substance abuse disorders can be very isolated. They can be very vulnerable, and I do believe we’re going to wind up seeing some other mental health consequences and perhaps some new substance use disorder coming from this pandemic,” said Dr. Pack. “Our surveillance systems to detect such things have been disrupted just like everything else has been disrupted.”

Dr. Pack said the best thing to do for people struggling with mental health or substance abuse disorders during the pandemic is to reach out to them.

Friday’s panel discussion will be in the form of a webinar that’s part of the 2020 Association of Schools & Programs of Public Health (ASPPH) Virtual Annual Meeting. It will be held from 1-2 p.m.

Presenters will include:

  • Anne Hazlett, special advisor for rural affairs with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy in the Executive Office of the President;
  • Brandon Marshall, associate professor at Brown University School of Public Health; and
  • Regina LaBelle, director of the Addiction & Public Policy Initiative and distinguished scholar at the O’Neill Institute for National & Global Health Law at Georgetown University Law Center.

For more information or to register, visit