As a response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the United States Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has temporarily relaxed restrictions to serve people who are opioid dependent during social distancing mandates. Changes include allowing patients to take home more doses of methadone and buprenorphine rather than coming to the clinic every day (for methadone) or weekly (for buprenorphine) and relaxed restrictions on telehealth delivery. Telemedicine Program representatives have described the relaxing of federal regulations as a “silver lining” to the COVID-19 pandemic. Drawing from medical anthropology approaches to epidemic surveillance and understandings of risk, we critically evaluate media representations of recent changes to telemedicine, prescribing, and opioid treatment delivery. Ethnographic research with providers and stakeholders in Arizona from 2017 to the present add insight to our analysis of media reports on these topics. Our findings demonstrate that media portrayal of access to medication-assisted treatment (MAT) as the key to preventing both COVID-19 and overdose among people who are opioid dependent misses important risks and potential inequities. Applied social science questions raised by the new guidelines include: who receives take-home doses of methadone and buprenorphine and why; and how media representations of risk and benefit rationales shape real-world policy and practice.

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