Hospital Settings

Addiction Treatment in Hospital Settings

Addiction Treatment in Hospital Settings During the COVID-19 Crisis


This guidance is related to the delivery of addiction treatment in hospital settings during the COVID- 19 pandemic.

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Updated: 6/30/20



While many places across the country are starting to relax physical distancing restrictions, the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. Communities and treatment programs across the country remain at risk for increasing population prevalence over time.

The COVID-19 crisis has not diminished, and more likely has exacerbated the addiction crisis in America. While most patients with substance use disorders can be effectively treated in outpatient or residential treatment programs, some patients have acute medical needs that require inpatient treatment. For example, patients with severe or complicated alcohol withdrawal, drug overdoses, or infectious complications from injection drug use may need admission to acute general medical settings. It is critical that these patients continue to have access to life saving care and that clinicians treating these patients address the underlying substance use disorder. In the era of COVID-19, this is especially important for reducing the chances of hospital readmission which pose additional risks for both the patient and public health.

Many hospitals have expanded the availability of inpatient substance use disorder services over the last several years as a response to the ongoing opioid crisis. However, some have reduced access to these services during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Hospitals have generally reduced all “non-essential” services; many include addiction services in this category.
  • To conserve PPE and reduce viral exposure, hospitals have reduced consultative activities, including addiction medicine, for people with confirmed or suspected COVID-19.
  • Some hospitals have shifted their focus to addressing acute medical problems rather than chronic vulnerabilities. deprioritizing substance use disorders along the way.

As described in The ASAM Criteria, hospital inpatient treatment is appropriate for patients with acute medical or psychiatric problems who require 24 hours medically managed care. Hospital policies and clinicians working in hospitals should consider:

  • Whether the patient can safely be treated in a less intensive level of care, balancing the risks to the individual patient posed by exposure to the novel coronavirus and the risks posed by their addiction and co-occurring conditions.
  • What other treatment options are accessible to the patient during this time.

While it is not known whether the medical sequelae of substance use disorders directly increase risk for COVID-19, it is likely that alcohol and drug behaviors increase the probability of contracting coronavirus and exacerbating the course of COVID-19 by the following mechanisms:

  • Inhalation of drugs likely increases exposure to and generation of aerosolized respiratory fluids.
  • Drugs that suppress respiratory drive may interact with adverse respiratory effects of COVID-19, contributing to increased risk of severe illness as well as overdose.
  • Alcohol and many illicit drugs have direct and indirect immunosuppressing effects, particularly when used heavily and chronically.
  • Smoking any substance, including tobacco and vaping may increase vulnerability to coronavirus infection and developing COVID-19.
  • Drugs that constrict blood flow may interact with hematological effects of coronavirus to increase risk of coagulopathies and/or ischemic disease.
  • Communal living, incarceration, homelessness, and poor hygiene increase exposure to the coronavirus.
  • People who have substance use disorders are driven by the disease to take risks that others might not.  As a result, they may be less likely to maintain social distancing than others, and the novel coronavirus may be more likely to spread in this population.  
  • Patients with substance use disorders, due to prejudice and stigma, are less likely to seek acute medical services for serious symptoms.

In addition, patients who are admitted to hospitals with substance use disorders often have underlying medical conditions that increase risk from COVID-19, and thus may have amplified risk of poor outcomes.

  • Respiratory disorders
  • Cardiac disorders
  • Chronic infections
    • Bacterial (i.e.: infective endocarditis)
    • Viral (i.e.: HIV; HCV)

The risks associated with COVID-19 may shift decision-making for some patients regarding whether they should be treated in an acute general hospital setting. However, for other patients the risks of untreated complications of substance use disorder may be greater than the risks posed to them by potential coronavirus transmission. For example, a patient with infective endocarditis may need acute hospital care to address this life-threatening infection. While they are receiving medical care, it is also imperative that the patient be engaged in treatment for the underlying addictive disease. Inadequate treatment of the SUD, especially the treatment of opioid withdrawal and opioid use disorder, is associated with non-completion of antibiotic treatment, against-medical-advice discharges, and eventual return to the hospital in more severe distress. 

By definition, addiction involves continued use of substances despite the harms they cause to a patient’s health. Simply knowing that endocarditis may recur and may even cost one’s life does not, in general, change patient behavior. It is critical that the patient receive evidence-based treatment for their underlying addiction to optimize chances for recovery and remission. Despite this fact, some hospitals will attempt to treat endocarditis without initiating addiction treatment and even deny care if the endocarditis recurs, with potentially fatal consequences. This poses significant ethical issues if healthcare systems hold patients accountable for treatment failure when effective treatment was not offered in the first place.

When treating patients with SUDs, clinicians should conduct a thorough assessment to determine the severity of the patient’s SUD and co-occurring conditions to understand the risks posed by inpatient treatment versus treatment in a less intensive level of care that the patient is able to access. While it is an incomplete substitution, consultations can be continued by remote chart review and telemedicine (provided the hospital has adequate technology).  This can work so long as the medical teams caring for the patient is willing to prescribe the medications recommended by the consultant. Any clinician with prescribing authority can provide either methadone or buprenorphine in a hospital inpatient setting in the following circumstances:

  • for withdrawal management or the treatment of opioid use disorder in patients admitted to the hospital for another medical condition (other than opioid use disorder or opioid withdrawal). 
  • to patients who have already been prescribed one of these medications and are admitted to the hospital, or treated in the emergency department. 

Alcohol and sedative hypnotic withdrawal symptoms can include nausea, vomiting, sweating, psychomotor agitation, tremors, seizures, and tachycardia. Opioid withdrawal symptoms can include myalgias, arthralgias, diarrhea, vomiting, nausea, sweating, abdominal cramps, tachycardia, and psychomotor agitation. Some of these symptoms can mimic COVID-19 illness or worsen presenting symptoms. Clinicians should ask patients about recent changes in use of alcohol, illicit drugs, and controlled prescription medications. The high levels of stress and anxiety caused by the COVID-19 pandemic is becoming a well-recognized trigger for increased substance use and recurrence of addictive disease among many patients, even those previously in remission and recovery.

Alcohol and sedative hypnotic withdrawal can be life threatening and may require acute hospital care.

Alcohol Withdrawal

Patients at risk for severe or complicated withdrawal generally require inpatient alcohol withdrawal management, particularly for those with:

  • A history of delirium tremens
  • A history of alcohol-related seizures
  • Age greater than 65
  • Medical co-morbidities such as advanced pulmonary, liver or renal disease

Patient with unstable housing or homelessness generally require inpatient alcohol withdrawal management. See ASAM’s Clinical Practice Guideline on Alcohol Withdrawal Management for guidance on the diagnosis, risk assessment, symptom assessment, level of care determinations, and management of alcohol withdrawal in both ambulatory and inpatient settings. In determining the appropriate level of care for a given patient during the COVID-19 pandemic, clinicians should also consider the COVID-19 risks for a given patient versus the risks associated with treating alcohol withdrawal in a less intensive care setting. Considerations should include:

  • Rates of community transmission
  • Available resources, both within the hospital and within the community
  • What other care options are currently accessible to the patient (particularly given reduced access as a result of COVID-19)
  • Which care options the patient is willing to engage in
  • The individual patient’s risk for severe COVID-19 illness
  • The individual’s risk for exposure to the coronavirus in the different available care settings

As discussed in the Guideline, a validated scale such as the Clinical Instrument Withdrawal Assessment for Alcohol, Revised (CIWA-Ar) should be used to assess alcohol withdrawal severity and guide treatment. This scale should not be used as a diagnostic tool because scores can be influenced by conditions other than alcohol withdrawal.

Sedative Hypnotic Withdrawal

Similar to alcohol withdrawal, patients at risk for severe or complicated benzodiazepine withdrawal should be monitored closely. Abrupt cessation of benzodiazepines is dangerous and should be assiduously avoided. Longer acting benzodiazepines should be used in a tapering fashion to treat or prevent benzodiazepine withdrawal. 

See guidance from the Yale Program In Addiction Medicine.

See SAMHSA’s TIP 45: TIP 45: Detoxification and Substance Abuse Treatment 

Opioid Withdrawal

The most effective medications for the treatment of opioid withdrawal are methadone and buprenorphine, although other medications are also commonly used (e.g. clonidine, lofexidine). Any clinician with prescribing authority can provide either of these medications in a hospital inpatient setting in the following circumstances: 

  • for withdrawal management or the treatment of opioid use disorder in patients admitted to the hospital for another medical condition (other than opioid use disorder or opioid withdrawal).
  • to patients who have already been prescribed one of these medications and are admitted to the hospital, or treated in the emergency department.

It is important that patients who are initiated on methadone or buprenorphine are engaged in ongoing treatment in the community since withdrawal management without ongoing treatment puts the patient at increased risk of overdose and overdose death. Consultation with an addiction specialist clinician is recommended. This consultation can be done remotely via telemedicine.  This requires that the treating team be more active in the SUD care than they may be when the consultant is able to meet with the patient face-to-face. Initiation of methadone or buprenorphine for long-term opioid use disorder treatment can start during hospitalizations for acute medical or psychiatric conditions other than the opioid use disorder or opioid withdrawal. In such cases, continued treatment with these medications should continue post-hospital discharge and be coordinated as part of the patient’s discharge plan. Long-term treatment with medications is the first-line standard of care for opioid use disorder, resulting in better outcomes for most patients than short-term opioid withdrawal management.

See ASAM’s National Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Opioid Use Disorder for recommendations for treating opioid use disorder, including opioid withdrawal.

Screening for alcohol, nicotine, and other substance use and use disorders is critical and should not be suspended during the COVID-19 crisis. Remember, many emergency department visits are alcohol related.1  In addition, alcohol and other drug use or withdrawal can complicate diagnoses and treatment. Untreated withdrawal can also lead the patient to leave prior to receiving needed medical care. This may be particularly likely to escalate as states "re-open" and people whose use of alcohol increased during shelter-in-place orders find themselves experiencing more severe withdrawal than previously experienced.


Clinicians should ensure that patients who are currently taking medications for addiction or psychiatric disorders have their medications continued. The dose of any controlled medication should be verified in parallel to initiation. While verifying dose is critical, there may be delays in verification processes during this crisis. Patients should not be denied access to medication if there are credible indications that the patient was taking a reasonable dosage. In the absence of credible evidence, or when there are concerns about appropriate decision-making regarding initiation or continuation of medication, seek consultation with an addiction specialist physician.

Medications for Opioid Use Disorder

Medication, in combination with psychosocial services targeted to the patient’s needs, is the standard of care for treating opioid use disorder. Disruption of medications for OUD can lead to relapse, overdose, and overdose death. During the COVID-19 crisis, access to addiction treatment, including OUD medications, may be disrupted.

Some patients may lose access to medications and need interim medication. Methadone and buprenorphine can be administered by non-waivered clinicians (clinicians without a DATA 2000 waiver to prescribe buprenorphine) in emergency department and hospital settings under limited circumstances. Any clinician with prescribing authority can provide either of these medications in a hospital inpatient setting in the following circumstances: 

  • Withdrawal management or the treatment of opioid use disorder in patients admitted to the hospital for another medical condition (other than opioid use disorder or opioid withdrawal).
  • Patients who have already been prescribed one of these medications and are admitted to the hospital, or treated in the emergency department.

In hospital settings, in the case of a medical emergency, buprenorphine or methadone can be ordered and administered by non-waivered clinicians for no more than 3days to treat acute withdrawal symptoms while arranging for referral for treatment as long as not more than one day’s medication is administered or given to a patient at one time. Naltrexone can be prescribed in any setting by any clinician with the authority to prescribe medications. However, naltrexone cannot be initiated until the patient has been fully withdrawn from opioids. This typically requires a 7 to 10-day period of being opioid-free.

Initiation of medication for OUD in hospitals and emergency departments can save lives and reduce the risk for readmission. Consideration should be given to the choice of medication and formulation in the context of the COVID-19 crisis. See ASAM’s COVID Guidance on Medications, Formulations, and Dosages.


  • Ensure that patients who are currently taking medication for opioid use disorder have their medication continued.
  • Do not discontinue a medication for opioid use disorder if a patient has an unexpected or concerning urine toxicology screen. Such a result should prompt a discussion with the patient, and coordination with care providers to modify the patient’s current treatment plan. Discontinuation of OUD medications will amplify the risk of relapse and overdose.
  • Patients with COVID-19 who are taking methadone should be monitored for QT interval prolongation because, like methadone, some treatments for COVID-19 also increase the QT interval. Clinicians should weigh the risks of destabilizing a patient’s opioid use disorder from reducing methadone doses or switching to a different medication with the risk of a Torsade de Pointes arrhythmia before making drastic changes to a patient’s methadone regimen. 
  • Consider increased duration of discharge medications to ensure that the patient has sufficient medications to prevent relapse prior to engaging in continuing care.
  • Coordinate with community treatment providers to ensure that patients have continued access to medications after discharge.
  • If initiating methadone, coordinate with local opioid treatment programs (OTPs).

There is no direct contraindication to placement of an indwelling catheter (e.g. PICC line) in a hospitalized patient with a history of intravenous (IV) drug use. Many patients with active addition are admitted to acute care settings for infectious complications of their IV drug use and require PICC line placement for 6-8 weeks of intravenous antibiotics. Once stabilized, many of these patients can be discharged from the hospital to a monitored setting for completion of their antibiotics. When possible, patients should be discharged to a sub-acute nursing facility or other medically monitored residential setting where appropriate nursing care is provided and available on a 24-hour basis and re-admission to the hospital is easily arranged if needed. However, during COVID-19, there may be decreased access to skilled nursing facilities or residential treatment facilities, and guidance is provided below on considerations for when patients with a history of IV drug use can be discharged home with a PICC line.

Discharging patients to home when they have a history of IV drug use and a PICC line can be considered for appropriate patients, particularly as access to sub-acute nursing services may be less accessible during the COVID-19 crisis.

If discharging to home, the clinician should ensure that visiting nursing and infusion services are available and that the patient:

  • Is currently taking medication for the treatment of OUD
  • Has a safe and stable home environment with clean water and heat
  • Has sufficient support at home

Discharging patients to home with an active addiction and a PICC line is generally contraindicated.

See Guidance from the Yale Program in Addiction Medicine.

Clinicians should also consider the patient’s risk for relapse, particularly given the factors that may increase this risk during the COVID-19 crisis. Consultation with an addiction specialist is recommended.

If the patient has COVID-19 or is suspected of having COVID-19, transfer to an alternative care site may be appropriate. The clinician should coordinate with the alternative care site to determine whether they have the capacity to manage the needs of the given patient, including those related to addiction and provision of necessary medications (increased coordination may be needed to ensure continuation of methadone or buprenorphine.)

Some patients may leave “against medical advice” prior to completion of a course of IV antibiotics. Consultation with an infectious disease specialist is recommended. All clinicians should work together when exploring options for switching from IV antibiotics to oral antibiotics. 

If there are no oral alternatives that would provide adequate infectious disease outcomes, the clinicians should consider:

  • Whether there are IV dose alternatives, including once daily formulations or long-acting injectable formulations like dalbavancin that can be delivered via an alternative route.
    • Daily dosing may be provided by infusion centers, home health agencies or an alternative care site, depending on their capabilities.
  • Whether the patient is willing to be transferred to a skilled nursing facility or residential treatment setting with the capacity to manage IV antibiotics, such as an ASAM Level 3.7 or 4.0 treatment program.
    • Some skilled nursing facilities and residential addiction treatment programs have stopped taking new patients during the COVID-19 crisis.
  • Whether patients can safely continue IV antibiotics in their homes. Clinicians should assess the risks and benefits for the individual patient and consider:
    • The stability of the patient’s substance use disorder.
    • The safety and stability of the patient’s home environment.
    • Availability of home support.
    • The substance use disorder treatment services the patient is receiving, whether the patient can continue to access those services during their antibiotic treatment, and ability to coordinate with the addiction treatment providers.
    • Availability of PICC line tamper prevention devices.

Addiction is a chronic medical illness that requires ongoing care. Delays or disruptions in care can be life threatening for some patients. While acute medical problems are addressed in the emergency department or hospital, steps should be taken to engage the patient in ongoing care for any substance use disorder. Staff responsible for coordinating ongoing patient care should keep abreast of local challenges in addiction treatment access. Some addiction treatment and withdrawal management programs have either closed or stopped taking new patients during the COVID-19 crisis. Other community programs have converted to telehealth.


  • Consider how telehealth can be used to provide addiction treatment concurrent with acute medical care during the hospitalization.
  • Engage and work with community addiction treatment providers to learn what services the patient will have access to after discharge. 
  • Determine whether the community treatment program can complete a tele-health intake while the patient is still in the hospital.
    • Interaction between the patient and the aftercare provider may yield a scheduled follow up appointment and increase likelihood of follow up.
    • Help walk the patient through use of telehealth technology while they are inpatient.
  • Determine whether the patient can reliably access telehealth services after discharge.
    • As many community treatment providers have converted to tele-medicine, persons without access to digital devices or safe settings from which to use those devices may experience even further reductions in access to services.
    • Coordinate with community treatment providers regarding options for patients without access.
  • Consider increased duration of discharge addiction treatment medications to ensure that patient has enough medications to prevent relapse prior to linking to aftercare (e.g. 2-4-week supply of buprenorphine depending on follow-up setting).
  • Coordinate with local clinics, including bridge clinics or bridge programs, if available to manage patient transitions from inpatient to outpatient care.

Patients who are COVID-19 positive (or presumptively infected), including those with addiction, can be discharged from the hospital whenever it is clinically indicated. It is important that these patients are engaged in appropriate aftercare (See Engagement in Addiction Treatment Section). Clinicians will need to consider where the patient can be safely discharged based on the ongoing care they require for both COVID-19 and addiction.


  • Perform an evaluation for the correct treatment level of care using a structured approach such as The ASAM Criteria.  Match the patient’s care needs with programs available to provide this care.  Specific challenges to access to SUD treatment due to COVID-19 may be present in your local community.
  • Consider the patient’s ability to obtain addiction treatment services via telehealth. 
    • Consider available treatment options via telehealth
    • Consider whether the patient has access to safe and stable housing.
    • Consider whether the patient has access to the necessary technology to engage in telehealth.
  • Consider use of alternative care sites.
    • Do available sites have the capacity to continue SUD treatment with adequately trained and credentialed staff?
    • o If patients are going to acute care or alternative care sites that do not have primary addiction care available, consider incorporating telehealth addiction treatment services at these sites.
  • Consider residential treatment facilities.
    • Is there an appropriate residential addiction treatment program to which the patient has access? (Note that some treatment programs have stopped taking new patients during this public health emergency). 

The CDC’s COVID-19 guidance states that:

Patients can be discharged from the healthcare facility whenever clinically indicated. If discharged to home:

The guidance also discusses discharge to long-term care or assisted living facility which are applicable to residential addiction treatment programs and other alternative care sites. The guidance states that:

  • Transmission-Based Precautions are still required, they should go to a facility with an ability to adhere to infection prevention and control recommendations for the care of COVID-19 patients. Preferably, the patient would be placed in a location designated to care for COVID-19 residents.
  • Transmission-Based Precautions have been discontinued, but the patient has persistent symptoms from COVID-19 (e.g., persistent cough), they should be placed in a single room, be restricted to their room, and wear a facemask during care activities until all symptoms are completely resolved or until 14 days after illness onset, whichever is longer.
  • Transmission-Based Precautions have been discontinued and the patient’s symptoms have resolved, they do not require further restrictions, based upon their history of COVID-19.

Patients may have reduced access to harm reduction services during COVID-19. Hospitals can play a role in ensuring that their patients have access to the necessary supplies that can prevent acute harms related to substance use and reduce hospital readmissions.


  • Continue giving naloxone kits, or prescribing naloxone, to patients at risk for opioid overdose prior to discharge from the hospital.
    • Prescription costs can be a barrier for some patients. As such, direct distribution is preferred if possible.
  • Consider providing antiseptic swabs or alcohol pads if appropriate.
  • Coordinate with local harm reduction service providers to explore options to naloxone distribution and syringe service programs
  • Consider PreP prior to discharge and connecting to outpatient continuity depending on the resources in the community for follow up and the patient’s likelihood of adherence to the medication and follow-up services.