‘A perfect storm’: Pandemic is making it harder to kick drugs

October 27, 2020

By The Patriot Ledger

This three-day series looks at how the Quincy Police Department’s Narcan program continues to save and change lives. Today: The ongoing coronavirus crisis has overshadowed an epidemic that has been killing Massachusetts residents for more than a decade.

The coronavirus pandemic has claimed the lives of more than 9,810 Massachusetts residents since March, battered the national economy and changed the way every American lives. It’s what is talked about on the news, in coffee shops and behind closed doors.

But while the world focuses on racing toward a vaccine for the pandemic, the opioid epidemic rages on in families helpless to stop their loved ones from succumbing to a very different type of disease.

“People with substance use disorder are struggling baseline, and right now everyone is struggling, so they are not immune from that,” Laura Martin, Quincy’s substance use prevention coordinator, said. “Anecdotally, we’re hearing about an increase in overdoses and we’re all in a bit of agreement that with an increased isolation and a decrease in services, relapse is a lot more likely. It’s a perfect storm.”

The state says nearly 19,000 people lost their lives to drug overdose between 2010 and 2019, yet the pandemic has managed to overshadow the epidemic that sank its claws into Massachusetts residents over a decade ago. Social distancing requirements cut off access to treatment, additional stressors have led to more triggers for addicts and experts say turning a blind eye to the enemy we know may end up fatal for many.

“We can’t look away,” Julie Burns, executive director of nonprofit RIZE Massachusetts, said. “It’s so easy to look away, but people will get sicker and sicker. There will be more people on the streets, people will lose their homes and, obviously, the biggest danger is death. People can die quickly from this, and we can’t lose sight of them.”

Narcan’s effect

As Massachusetts marks a decade of regular use of Narcan, the overdose-reversal drug, the state has seen a slight decrease in fatal overdoses. The state Department of Public Health says 2,102 people died from opioid-related overdoses in 2016, and that number dropped to an estimated 2,015 in 2019.

Burns says it is too soon to know exactly how coronavirus-related stressors have affected the opioid epidemic, but she points to the longtime use of Narcan as a reason Massachusetts may see fewer fatal overdoses during this period than other states.

“We do have a ‘best practices’ Narcan distribution system here in the state,” she said. “People know where to get it and how to use it, so we may actually see slightly better numbers than the states around us.”

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, more than 40 states have reported increases in opioid-related deaths, the American Medical Association says. Experts blame the increases on stressors and distractions brought on by the pandemic; a system already poorly set up to handle mental health crisis; and coronavirus-mandated changes to treatment options, such as the reduction of in-person support groups and the elimination of hospital intervention programs.

“The opioid crisis was in the news on a very regular basis for the last several years,” Burns said. “It was something public officials talked about with regularity, but given COVID and the increased focus on race and equity, it’s really been pushed off the front pages. People in recovery or in the field or who have a family member who is struggling are still paying attention, but for others, it has just fallen away.”

Those in the substance abuse field say the pandemic brought together a series of circumstances that worsened an already difficult problem.

For one, the isolation and general uncertainty confronting millions of Americans have been a mental health trigger for many. Massachusetts General Hospital reports a rise in cases of anxiety and depression in the general population, and experts say that’s particularly true of those with substance use disorder.

“The things that (people in recovery) have relied upon for so long are kind of gone,” Martin said. “Substance use disorder is a disease where isolation and disruption can be an extremely dangerous thing, both for people in recovery and people trying to seek services.”

The pandemic has also diverted resources away from the epidemic, so services such as A New Way Recovery Center’s H.E.A.R.T. program have been hit hard. Some people are facing joblessness, leading to an inability to pay for recovery and to more idle time.

“The economic fallout is tough because a lot of people use work as a distraction and part of recovery,” Burns said. “People are starting to see the real impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the streets and in mental health fields.”

‘It’s just gone’

Robyn Houston-Bean, of Braintree, who became a vocal advocate for drug overdose awareness when her 20-year-old son Nick died in 2015, said she’s had people say to her, “Oh, things must be good, I haven’t heard about overdoses lately.”

“And I say, ‘No, it’s just not a news story anymore,’” she said. “The opioid epidemic has gotten lost within COVID. It seems to have just fallen off of any mentions in the news or in conversations. It’s just gone – ‘poof.’”

Mike Woodbury, of Pembroke, lost both his sons to overdoses in 2016. They died on the same day, in the same house, from the same thing: an overdose of fentanyl, a powerful synthetic opioid that kills many heroin and prescription drug addicts.

“It’s a long-term struggle and it’s not getting any easier,” Woodbury said of trying to cope with his sons’ deaths. “My wife isn’t coping with it at all. I just started counseling for the second time. I’ve been talking to the same therapist since the pandemic started. It helps.”

Michael Woodbury was 37 and his brother, Jonathan Woodbury, was 33 when they died. They left behind their mother, father, sister and a teenaged daughter. The two men had been in the grips of addiction for a decade and had been making progress in staying clean. Jonathan had been clean for three years. Michael had just crossed the one-year threshold.

While his family’s fight with the epidemic ended four years ago, Mike Woodbury says he still sees it all around him. A co-worker recently lost his son to an overdose. Woodbury’s neighbor has been revived by paramedics three times following overdoses.

“My granddaughter who lost her father, she’s 16 now. She sees the ambulance pull up to the neighbor’s house, and she knows why,” Woodbury said. “It’s still there, like any other disease. Like cancer or anything else, this hasn’t gone away because of coronavirus. And it’s so, so serious.”

Fear of backsliding

Houston-Bean said COVID-19′s impact on the addiction community has shown itself in many ways. Her organization, The Sun Will Rise Foundation, saw a huge influx in requests for scholarships to pay for sober living homes as people lost their jobs and ability to pay. She also runs a grief support group, which has had an influx of new members who’ve lost someone to opioids.

“I’ve felt so bad for these families because they couldn’t even grieve with other people,” she said. “They were already feeling stigmatized and alone, and they found themselves even more isolated and unable to get support.”

The Sun Will Rise has spent the better part of five years providing resources for those who are struggling, helping to pay for treatment options and getting the word out about substance abuse disorder. But she fears these six months of silence on the topic will wipe out her, and others’, efforts.

“I thought we were making some headway. The stigma was starting to lessen a bit, people were starting to understand that it really does take community to try to support people,” she said. “But if that message gets lost, we’re going to lose years.”

Despite the challenges, social workers, recovery coaches and others are praised for stepping up to fill a void that at one time seemed bottomless.

“Instead of just throwing their hands up like so many people would when, literally, everything is falling apart, the people in the recovery world have just gotten more resilient,” Martin said. “They’re coming up with the best ways to help. Does that mean it’s easy? No. Does that mean we aren’t in a lot of trouble? No. But it’s inspiring to see.”

Quincy police Detective Lt. Patrick Glynn, who helped pioneer officers’ use of Narcan, says the fight against opioids has “turned the corner,” but he fears a backward slide. He used football as an analogy.

“We’re on the 5-yard line, so to speak, and I think that’s going to continuously be fourth (down) and 5. It would be great to get to that goal line, but again, we’ve got to be realistic about it,” he said. ” We can’t move backwards, we can’t be pushed back to the 6-yard line, the 7-yard line. We’ve made it so far that we have to keep it going.”