• Bob Vlach, Woodford Sun Staff

Drug use, overdoses and isolation during a pandemic

ANGIE STEWART, pictured with daughter Savannah, has helped countless people suffering with addiction find help. She said not being able to attend in-person meetings because of the pandemic is hard. “It’s scary. It’s like your whole support system is gone,” said Stewart, who has been in recovery for almost 16 years. (Photo submitted)

Isolation during the COVID-19 pandemic has been tough on many people, but especially for those with a substance use disorder, according to Woodford Circuit Judge Brian Privett who serves as Drug Court judge in the 14th Judicial Circuit (Woodford, Bourbon and Scott counties). “One of the worst things for people with substance use disorder is isolation, and that’s what’s happened this year,” Privett said. “Relapses and overdoses have gone through the roof because of the isolation ...” Provisional data available to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicate approximately 81,230 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12-month period ending in May 2020. The largest increase in overdose deaths occurred from March to May of last year. That coincided with widespread mitigation measures during the pandemic, a health advisory from the CDC stated. Mitigation efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19 include social distancing and, perhaps most importantly to anyone with a substance use disorder, no in-person meetings like Narcotics Anonymous. Angie Stewart, who has been in recovery for almost 16 years and has helped countless people suffering with addiction find help, said not being able to attend in-person meetings is hard. The Versailles resident said she also misses teaching classes at the Woodford County Detention Center, because helping the inmates was a part of her recovery. “It’s scary. It’s like your whole support system is gone,” said Stewart. She said talking to someone on the phone isn’t the same as being face-to-face with them. “It’s been hard. It’s been really hard. Not only on people new in recovery, but people who have been in recovery because we still need each other. ... We need to see each other, and when that’s taken away it’s scary,” she said. One of the silver linings during the pandemic has been “a huge uptick in the use of virtual recovery supports” like Zoom meetings, according to Alex Elswick, co-founder of Voices of Hope in Lexington. “At first, I was really skeptical about that,” he said, “just how effective it would be, how connected you could feel over a screen.” Based on personal experiences, he said virtual meetings have been embraced by people who have experienced trauma or are dealing with anxiety. They may prefer being behind a screen and not in a social meeting space with 12 strangers, he said. Voices of Hope, which provides services to people in recovery, has lost multiple members of its community to overdose and suicide during the pandemic, Elswick said. He said research shows people in the early stages of recovery are hyper-sensitive to stress. “So you can imagine what it must be like to be a person who’s hyper-sensitive to stress in the current climate, with political upheaval and social unrest and a public health pandemic,” said Elswick, who’s pursuing his doctoral degree at the University of Kentucky, where he’s doing research on the impact addiction has on families. Because many living with a substance use disorder “suffer in silence,” Versailles Police Assistant Chief Rob Young said the pandemic may contribute to their isolation, but isn’t the sole factor. Often a drug user chooses to isolate themselves from friends and family because they don’t want them to know about their addiction, he explained. “They’ll retreat into unoccupied rooms, bathrooms to take the drugs. And a lot of times, the family finds them after a significant period and sadly it’s too late,” Young said. He said people suffering from a drug addiction often choose “to suffer alone, and that’s not necessarily a function of the pandemic.” Overdose deaths in Kentucky last year are projected to be the highest ever, Privett said. Based on provisional death count data from the CDC for the 12 months ending in May 2020, Kentucky will have a 25 to 49 percent increase in overdose deaths over the 12-month period ending in June 2019. The number of overdose deaths in Kentucky this year has been “exacerbated by the pandemic,” Elswick said. According to annual fatality reports from the Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy, overdose deaths in the state climbed from 1,404 in 2016 to 1,468 in 2017, before falling to 1,274 in 2018 and then rising again to 1,316 in 2019. In Woodford County, Young said drug overdoses come in waves. “We’ll have a period where there seems to be a spike in overdoses, and then we’ll go into a little bit of a hiatus and numbers seem to go down,” he said. Overdose deaths in Woodford County steadily climbed from 5 in 2016 to 6 in 2017 to 8 in 2018 to 9 in 2019, according to the annual Kentucky Office of Drug Control Policy fatality reports. Young said he hasn’t noticed a significant increase in overdoses here in recent months. That’s based on his perception, including not having to replace Narcan used by officers to counteract the life-threatening effects of an opioid overdose as often. “Overall, through the ebbs and flows,” he said, “the numbers have stayed consistent.” When an overdose does occur, it’s sometimes too late for a police officer to administer Narcan because a person has been deceased for awhile, Young said. Since the inception of the Narcan program at the Versailles Police Department on Nov. 27, 2017, officers have given the medication to 53 individuals. “In a majority of instances,” he wrote in an email, “individuals have received more than one dose and upwards of three.” In Drug Court, counselors and case managers continue to provide services to people struggling with addiction during the pandemic, Privett said. Those services are provided remotely, and Drug Court has been running smoothly since May or June, he said. He said Drug Court participates are also receiving peer support and drug screens, which are conducted safely with testers wearing personal protective equipment. “It’s the people who are not in Drug Court – the people who are either on probation or parole, or they’re still waiting for their cases to be tried – those are the ones that really have been affected (by the pandemic), because they don’t have any resources or they’re not forced to use resources,” Privett said. This past summer, “It seemed like there was at least one overdose death in the (14th Judicial) circuit every week that we knew about … somebody connected to the court,” Privett said. For him and other judges, he said, “It’s a tragedy,” when anyone dies of a drug overdose. It’s especially troubling for any judge when they dismiss criminal charges because that person dies. “It affects you regardless of whether you’re a Drug Court judge or not,” he said. “It’s definitely a tragedy.” In addition to the services provided by Drug Court, he said 12 recent Drug Court graduates in this circuit volunteered to regularly call or text current participates to check on them and to see how they’re doing. So if they needed services, “We could do interventions and get them counseling ...” he added. “So Drug Court has been great (about staying connected with participates) because we have an organization, we have resources.” People in Drug Court are still being helped by in-patient and (remote) out-patient treatment services, according to Privett. “And there are more patient services now in Kentucky than ever,” he said. “We have no waiting periods, almost, for in-patient services – regardless of the length of time, whether it’s 28 days or 12 months. There are beds available because there are so many treatment centers now.” Those with a substance use disorder who are not in Drug Court may be unaware of their treatment options or they’re not being forced to use those services, Privett said. People in Drug Court are ordered to get treatment when they’re placed on probation and released from jail, he said. Getting someone to want treatment, Young said, “that’s all of our problem.” “I know who’s suffering out there,” he said. “I see them in the parks. I see them walking. And try to get out and talk to them all the time, offer help all the time.” It’s only after somebody realizes they need to seek help that they can be helped, Young said. “Because,” he added, “you can’t force somebody who’s suffering from addiction to get help. It doesn’t work ... They have to want it, and there needs to be something that changes...” It may take asking 10, 20 or 30 times, Young continued, before someone says they’re ready to accept an offer of help. “And then they go for help. That doesn’t mean it necessarily works, but at least it maybe starts the healing process,” he said. Stewart has been there. She almost died of a drug overdose before seeking treatment. “She understands what folks suffering from addiction are going through,” said Young, “and I’ve seen her show compassion (by reaching out to them) ... And it means everything to the folks that are suffering because most of them don’t want to be there ... They’re ashamed of where they are, and that’s why a lot of them retreat” and become isolated from others. “I was in such bad shape,” Stewart told the Sun in a 2017 interview, “it was shameful to come back home, for my family to see me the way I was. So I just stayed gone.” Today, in the midst of a pandemic that has caused her and many others to self-isolate to keep high-risk elderly parents safe, Stewart said, “If I were new to recovery during this, I’m not sure I would’ve made it.” She said there’s nothing that can replace sitting down with someone who’s been where you’re at and learning from each other’s experiences. “Sometimes, I feel like I make a difference. And other days, I feel like I’m drowning,” said Stewart. “I’ve been to a lot, a lot of funerals over the last few years.” Young said Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid, remains “a nasty, sinister” illicit drug and continues to cause overdoses and overdose deaths. “When you’re buying these drugs on the street from unknown sources,” he explained, “you don’t how much product, meaning fentanyl, is in what you’re taking.” With no “quality control,” a person may think they’re buying heroin and they’re actually buying fentanyl, which is a much more potent and that “changes the game,” Young said. “You’re talking about an incredibly powerful chemical (up to 100 times stronger than morphine) that they’re putting into their body,” he added. According to the CDC’s health alert on fatal overdoses in the United States, “Synthetic opioids are the primary driver of the increases in overdose deaths. The 12-month count of synthetic opioid deaths increased 38.4% from the 12 months ending June 2019 compared with the 12 months ending in May 2020.”

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