How Local Organizations Are Adapting To Meet Opioid Crisis Challenges During The Pandemic
More than 87,000 people across the U.S. died of drug overdoses between September 2019 and September 2020, marking “the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period,” according to preliminary data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. The latest data is a departure from previous reports – nationally, drug overdose deaths went down in 2018 for the first time in more than two decades, but numbers increased again in the first few months of the pandemic.
In Allegheny County, there were 682 reported overdose deaths in 2020, an increase from 564 reported overdose deaths in 2019. Advocates said that number is expected to increase when the final 2020 figures are released later this year.
Dr. Julia D’Alo, medical director at Gateway Rehab and emergency medicine physician at St. Clair Hospital, said for some, the pandemic has “accelerated the use of substances,” including opioids.
“The pandemic has complicated the lives of those in recovery, as well as in active addiction, for obvious reasons,” D’Alo said. “Increasing rates of anxiety, depression, social isolation, work from home orders, high rates of unemployment and housing instability – I mean, all of these things that are obvious reasons, I think, that have accelerated this.”
But making contact with people who need help has been complicated by those very same factors. Some organizations, like the South Pittsburgh Opioid Coalition, moved in-person meetings and support groups online, but found that many people did not have regular access to technology or Wi-Fi.
“Doing a traditional Zoom meeting, like many of us have grown accustomed to, was something that, unfortunately, people who are struggling with substance use may not have been able to access easily,” said Lance Rhoades, senior pastor at the Tree of Life Open Bible Church in Brookline and a leader of the South Pittsburgh Opioid Action Coalition.
Instead, they organized phone chains and neighbor check-ins to help people struggling with substance use disorder, and offered virtual meetings for family members and loved ones who wanted to learn how to reach out and help.
“A lot of times, because of the stigma, people are alone and they feel like they don’t have anyone to reach out for help. Throughout this whole pandemic our coalition has been very engaged trying to get virtual recovery programming going to try and remove that aloneness and help people understand,” says Rhoades.
“Encouraging family members to check in on individuals even if they felt that a person would never have a recurrence of use, we wanted them to still check in and open the conversation up. That was one of, I believe, the most important things.”
The pandemic has also triggered other needs, said Alice Bell, the overdose prevention Project Coordinator at Prevention Point Pittsburgh, which offers health services to people who use drugs. She said the organization has seen increased demand for access to medical care and medicines, as well as food and rental assistance, and have shifted operations accordingly.
In October 2020, Prevention Point launched its first mobile medicine site in the Hill District, and they have partnered with local food banks to distribute food and masks alongside sterile syringes and naloxone. They have since added an additional three mobile medicine sites across the city.
“We need to really step up and make low-barrier medication available to make it easier for people to get methadone and get suboxone who want to do that,” said Bell.
Providing additional services helps organizations to meet people where they are, said D’Alo, citing the necessity of harm reduction, which can include distributing Naloxone and establishing needle exchange programs.
“There’s a growing body of evidence to support harm reduction as a way to keep people with substance use disorders safer while using their substance and keep them alive longer while continued attempts are made to help them engage in treatment.”
Prevention Point’s Hill District mobile medicine site has seen 65 unique individuals since it was first launched.
Bell said earlier in the pandemic, Prevention Point “had a day where 25 percent of the people who came actually weren’t coming to get drug supplies but were coming to get other needs. They were coming just for food, or masks, or bus tickets. So, you now, we’re seeing a lot of desperation.”