The COVID-19 Pandemic Leads to Surge in Drug Test Positivity Rates

Substance abuse

The COVID-19 pandemic has led to many changes for both employers and employees alike, especially when it comes to prioritizing safety in the workplace. When compared to similar national crises, such as the terrorist attacks on 9/11, research has proved that substance abuse increases (click here to watch DISA’s Webinar on Drug Abuse in Times of National Crisis).

When referencing a report by the Well Being Trust and the Robert Graham Center for Policy Studies in Family Medicine and Primary Care, Human and Health Services (HHS) Secretary Alex Azar stated that ”the recession from the pandemic will lead to at least an extra 65,000 deaths from drug overdose, alcohol abuse and suicide over 10 years.” People tend to rely on self-medicating to help them cope with their increased anxiety, stress, depression, and fear that increases during such troubled times. It’s more important now, more than ever before, for employers to continue drug testing to further protect their company and employees.

Increased Positivity Rates

Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, substance abuse rates were on the rise due to the combination of the legalization of marijuana and the opioid epidemic. With the pandemic adding emotional distress, the numbers are expected to continue to rise, even after the coronavirus comes to an end. In April and May, we have seen the number of positive drug tests increase substantially when compared to year-over-year.

DISA’s trusted lab partner, Clinical Reference Laboratories (CRL), has provided a closer insight into historical drug testing positivity rates for the four most commonly tested drugs (marijuana, cocaine, amphetamines, and opioids). On average, when comparing these four drugs year-over-year, April’s positivity rates are up by more than 16%. In May, the trend continued with a 24.1% increase in positivity rates when comparing May 2020 to May 2019. Marijuana specifically went up 21% in April 2020 vs. April 2019 and saw a staggering 37.8% increase in positivity rate when comparing May 2020 to May 2019. Although these numbers are highlighting a year-over-year increase, April and May specifically have spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic.

2019 saw a rise in amphetamine and marijuana positivity rates, but the COVID pandemic has accelerated the problem. Additionally, cocaine was decreasing from May 2019 to the end of the year, but this crisis has caused it to boomerang back up significantly.

Safety-Sensitive Random Drug Testing

When comparing DISA’s data year-over-year for random drug testing (regardless of the methodology or program), we are also seeing signs of dramatically increased drug abuse in our industry. DISA’s random drug testing positivity rates are up from 0.18% in April 2019 to 0.37% in May 2020. That means the number of positive random drug tests has more than doubled in 13 months!

Additionally, we are seeing an increase in amphetamine positivity rates up 240% and opioid positivity rates up by more than 430%! The safety-sensitive industry has historically been hit particularly hard by the opioid epidemic. As a result of this pandemic, both amphetamines and opioids have surpassed cocaine in random drug testing positivity rates. This is the first time DISA has seen that occur.

Continued Workplace Safety

One of the long-lasting effects of the COVID-19 pandemic that employers will have to address, even once it’s gone, is increased substance abuse. As states begin reopening plans and phasing employees back into the workplace, it’s vital that employers implement drug testing procedures. Testing solutions, such as random testing or testing all employees before they return to work from being furloughed or laid off, are instrumental for employers to maintain a safe workplace. Pre-employment testing will also help employers determine a reliable hire when rebuilding staff in the months to come.

A common misconception among employers is that collection sites pose an increased risk of coronavirus exposure when sending employees for testing. The collection site industry as a whole has enforced new guidelines and safety measures to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure. Some of those measures include waiting in the car, enhanced cleaning protocols, mask/glove protocols, and enhanced social distancing of employees. In addition, only specific collection sites are offering COVID-19 testing, while most, including all DISA Global Solutions-owned collection sites, are not testing individuals for COVID-19. In other words, people who are showing symptoms and want to get tested for COVID-19 most likely aren’t visiting drug testing collection sites, and instead are going to hospitals or locations specifically designed for that testing.

What Can DISA Do for You?

As your trusted third-party administrator (TPA), DISA can assist you with building and maintaining a drug testing program that works for you and your business. By enlisting one of our professionals, we can help you navigate the complexities of drug testing laws, regulations, and methodologies to create a suitable program that will enhance your workplace safety during such unprecedented times. If you would like to learn more about DISA’s employment screening services, please contact our sales group at 281-673-2530 or email

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About DISA Global Solutions

Founded in 1986, DISA is the industry-leading provider of employee screening and compliance services. Headquartered in Houston, with more than 35 offices throughout the U.S. and Canada, DISA’s comprehensive scope of services includes drug and alcohol testing, background check, occupational health, and transportation compliance. DISA assists employers in making informed staffing decisions while building a culture of safety in their workplace.

DISA Global Solutions aims to provide accurate and informative content for educational purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. The reader retains full responsibility for the use of the information contained herein. Always consult with a professional or legal expert.