How native organizations are adapting to fulfill the challenges of the opioid disaster throughout the pandemic
More than 87,000 people in the US died of overdoses between September 2019 and September 2020. This is the “highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period,” according to preliminary data from the US Centers for Disease Control. The latest data is a departure from previous reports – nationwide, deaths from overdose declined in 2018 for the first time in more than two decades, but numbers picked up again in the first few months of the pandemic.
Allegheny County reported 682 overdose deaths in 2020, up from 564 overdose deaths in 2019. Proponents said the number is expected to rise when the final 2020 numbers are released later this year.
Dr. Julia D’Alo, medical director at Gateway Rehab and emergency physician at St. Clair Hospital, said for some the pandemic had “accelerated the use of substances, including opioids.”
“The pandemic has complicated the lives of people in recovery and active addiction for obvious reasons,” D’Alo said. “Increasing rates of anxiety, depression, social isolation, housework, high unemployment rates, and housing instability – I mean, all of these things are obvious reasons I think that have accelerated this.”
However, the same factors made contact with people in need of help difficult. Some organizations, such as the South Pittsburgh Opioid Coalition, have put face-to-face meetings and support groups online but found that many people did not have regular access to technology or WiFi.
“Unfortunately, hosting a traditional Zoom meeting that many of us have become accustomed to was something that people struggling with substance use may not have easy access to,” said Lance Rhoades, senior pastor at the Tree of Life Open Bible Church in Brookline and Chairman of the South Pittsburgh Opioid Action Coalition.
Instead, they organized phone chains and check-ins for neighbors to help people with substance use disorders, and offered virtual meetings for family members and loved ones who wanted to learn how to contact and help.
“Often times, because of the stigma, people are alone and feel like they have no one to ask for help. Throughout this whole pandemic, our coalition has been very committed to kick-starting virtual recovery programming to eradicate this loneliness and make it easier for people to understand, “says Rhoades.
“We encouraged family members to get in touch with individuals even if they thought a person would never be used again. We wanted them to keep checking in and opening the call. I think that was one of the most important things. “
The pandemic has sparked other needs as well, said Alice Bell, the overdose prevention project coordinator at Prevention Point Pittsburgh, which provides health services to people who use drugs. She said the organization has seen increased demand for access to health care and medicines, as well as food and rental support, and has shifted operations accordingly.
In October 2020, Prevention Point launched its first mobile medicine location in the Hill District and has partnered with local food banks to distribute groceries and masks alongside sterile syringes and naloxone. Since then, they have added three more mobile medicine locations across the city.
“We really need to ramp up the availability of low-barrier drugs to make it easier for people to get methadone and suboxone who want to,” Bell said.
Providing additional services helps organizations meet people where they are, D’Alo said, highlighting the need for harm reduction, which can include distributing naloxone and setting up needle exchange programs.
“There is growing evidence to aid harm reduction, to make people with substance use disorders safer to use their substance and to keep them alive longer while trying to help them with treatment.”
Prevention Point’s Hill District mobile medicine website has seen 65 unique people since its inception.
Bell said earlier in the pandemic, Prevention Point “had a day when 25 percent of the people who came didn’t come to get medication but to get other needs. They only came for food, masks or bus tickets. So now you see a lot of despair. “