As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the number of suspected opioid overdoses, as well as overdose-related deaths, has spiked across Kentucky and many other states, caused by ongoing social isolation and a lack of employment opportunities.
In Kentucky, the number of suspected opioid overdose responses by emergency medical services (EMS) has sharply increased since Gov. Andy Beshear declared a state of emergency regarding COVID-19 in early March. According to the Kentucky Injury Prevention and Research Center, the number of total EMS opioid overdose encounters increased dramatically from just about 25 encounters on Feb. 12 to nearly 40 on March 19 and more than 70 on May 2 this year.
Now, as the pandemic has continued, experts believe the number of suspected opioid overdoses has only continued to increase since May.
Matt Brown, senior vice president of administration for Addiction Recovery Care, said that ARC has seen an increase in incidents of relapse and incidents of drug and/or alcohol overdose since the pandemic began. ARC operates a network of more than 30 addiction treatment centers in 16 Eastern and Central Kentucky counties.
“In mid-March to mid-April, we lost nine people who were previous clients of ours to drug overdose or alcohol-related overdose,” Brown said. “We lost nine people in a 30-day time frame. That’s more people than we’ve lost in the previous 12 months.”
There were 67,367 drug overdose deaths across the country in 2018, 4.1 percent fewer deaths than in 2017. Opioids were involved in nearly 47,000 of those deaths, or nearly 70 percent. In Kentucky, there were 989 drug overdose deaths involving opioids in 2018, a decrease from 1,160 deaths in 2017, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse.
Although the rate of drug-involved overdoses had previously decreased, there were many states across the country that saw an increase from January 2019 to January 2020. The rates of all opioid overdose-related EMS encounters increased in states like Florida, Indiana, Illinois, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, among others, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s Drug Overdose Surveillance and Epidemiology system. Kentucky’s data was not available in that system.
The recent increase of drug-related overdoses during the COVID-19 pandemic has raised the alarm for many experts. More than 35 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality since the pandemic started, according to the American Medical Association.
Brown said that many people who may have struggled or who are currently struggling with addiction are now more socially isolated because of the pandemic, due to the increased use of telecommunications and the need to maintain social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus.
“What we’ve seen is, just the isolation, the stress, the worry, the anxiety, the instability of the state of the world today because of COVID-19, I think that’s just driven people maybe beyond their coping skills,” Brown said.
Connection and social interaction, Brown said, are crucial for those struggling with addiction, and it has become difficult for many people in recovery to develop that connection during the pandemic.
“Connection is the opposite of addiction,” Brown said. “What we’ve seen is the isolation has pushed people into their homes by themselves. There’s been less connection in outpatient care. There’s been less connection in AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) meetings, church services have been mostly online for several months and all that lack of connection combined with increased stress, increased instability and increased uncertainty.”
Brown noted that the ARC centers have seen an increased need for help since the pandemic, but also a decrease in people seeking treatment. He said this decreased demand for treatment could be because those struggling with addiction are remaining more isolated in order to hold onto their addiction for a longer period of time, instead of seeking treatment.
Brown said that employment, or lack thereof, also plays a factor in the increase in drug overdoses. After extreme rates of unemployment in Kentucky during the months of March, April and May, unemployment rates across the state have fallen since the reopening of public-facing businesses, restaurants and other facilities. However, in Eastern Kentucky, the rates of unemployment still remain the highest in the state.
Local rates of unemployment fell greatly between May and June this year, bringing the rate down from a high of 12.6 percent in May to 7.2 percent overall in the Big Sandy Area Development District (Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin, Martin and Pike).
“When you’re in active addiction, you’re spending all your time obsessing, planning for your next fix and to remain out of withdrawals,” Brown said. “You can’t just stop taking drugs. You have to replace all that time and energy into something different and positive, and many people do that with their work, their family, etc.”
Kenny Bearden, 31, of Louisville, is a community liaison for ARC. He said the loss of employment has also led to relapses for many people.
“It is extremely hard to find a job right now outside of healthcare services,” Bearden said. “Getting a job for people leaving recovery, they almost have to get a job back in recovery or know a small business owner that hasn’t been affected by COVID. That’s played a huge role in the relapse rates as well. They say, ‘Idle hands is the devil’s playground,’ and not having something to do productive with their time has definitely played a huge part.”
Bearden entered treatment and began recovery from drug addiction about six years ago, after struggling with addiction since he was 11 years old and overdosing 30 times throughout his life. He has worked with people in recovery at various advocacy organizations, including the Society of St. Vincent De Paul Homeless Shelter, Landmark Recovery Center, Practice Recovery Center of Louisville and the Kentucky chapter of the American Civil Liberties’ Union.
In early July, Bearden was invited to meet with President Donald Trump at the White House in a round-table discussion in order to reduce the stigma around drug addiction and to discuss drug policy by sharing his story of addiction.
“I’ve been working to de-stigmatize addiction and de-criminalize addiction,” Bearden said. “I got to take my story to the White House, and I was invited down by the Office of National Drug Control Policy. … Being down there and getting to share my story was truly the highest of honors, and I know that I’m making a difference through my story.”
In addition to the barriers from COVID-19, Bearden added that counterfeit or tainted drugs also may be causing overdose deaths to increase across the state. The Kentucky River District Health Department issued an overdose alert in early June for Perry County and surrounding counties after a large increase in overdoses.
According to KRDHD Public Health Director Scott Lockard, some parts of the state saw an increase in the supply of counterfeit pharmaceutical pills — pills manufactured to look like Xanax or Lortab that are also mixed with Fentanyl. These counterfeit pills provide a higher dose of an opioid than the buyer is used to, which typically results in an overdose.
Bearden said those counterfeit pills, along with other drugs, may be causing more people to overdose and die.
“There’s a lot of bad dope out there right now, and people are getting their hands on anything that they can because there’s a scarcity,” Bearden said. “There’s an underlying fear with the COVID-19 of not being around people. They’ll get their hands on anything they can, get back home, be isolated, use and I believe a lot of people are overdosing and dying from that.”
Bearden expressed the importance of helping people who may be struggling with drug and alcohol addiction.
“That is someone’s son,” Bearden said. “This is someone’s daughter. This isn’t an addict or an alcoholic. This isn’t a junkie. This is someone’s mother, someone’s father. It’s a human being, and it’s someone who at one point was just like everyone else out there.”
For people interested in helping those struggling with addiction, ARC is offering its first free virtual “Recovery Connectors” training program. The program lasts from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. on Aug 25, and any members of the public can take the course.
“After that training, that person will become a certified ‘Recovery Connector,’ and it is a training program that Addiction Recovery Care created to increase the information out in the community about addiction, about treatment (and) about recovery,” Brown said. “The call to action is if you are a Recovery Connector and you know of someone who knows someone with addiction, you are armed with the basic information about who that person should call and how the process works.”
For more information about Recovery Connectors, people are encouraged to email, email@example.com. For help with addiction, call ARC at, (606) 638-0938, or visit the ARC website at, arccenters.com.
If you or someone you know is struggling with a substance abuse disorder, call the KY HELP Call Center at, 1-833-8KY-HELP (1-833-859-4357).