Pandemic hasn’t erased the opioid epidemic

October 9, 2020

By CommonWealth

HE HAD JUST LOST his father to COVID-19. His dad had succumbed to this relentless disease while living in a long-term care facility. He was just beginning to cope with that loss.

Then, it got worse.

Two weeks later, he lost his son. His son died after a long-term battle with opioid addiction, stolen by an epidemic that has been raging since well before the pandemic – and still rages today.

What made these losses even more traumatic? Unable to hold a funeral or have any real way to join together with loved ones, he couldn’t say good-bye to either. The pandemic had taken that from him as well.

This is the tragic story of one family in Massachusetts. The pandemic has impacted so many more. And for those struggling with addiction, or who have a loved one who is, it’s brought a whole new set of challenges and hardship.

Across the country, studies have shown that drug overdoses have risen by as much as 18 percent during COVID-19. According to a survey by the CDC, 13 percent of respondents in June said they started or increased substance use to deal with stress related to COVID-19. And with the pandemic hitting black, Latinx and native people the hardest, it is no coincidence that overdoses have disproportionately impacted communities of color.

As leaders of local health care and recovery support organizations, and board members of the RIZE Massachusetts Foundation, we’ve seen firsthand the challenges for those in opioid recovery during this health crisis.

It has forced many into isolation, unable to access much of the in-person support they need. This has contributed to a greater number of relapses for those in long-term recovery. Even the arrival of stimulus checks – a lifesaver for most – brings a new source of anxiety and temptation for those battling addiction.

The availability of affordable, long-term recovery beds also remains a challenge. Many treatment providers have had to reduce capacity due to COVID safety restrictions. Finding long-term recovery beds for women is an even greater battle. And the costs remain prohibitive for far too many.  At Learn to Cope, we recently tried to find an affordable bed for a man we had just helped come back from a southern state. When we couldn’t, he disappeared. We now wait to hear from him again, fearing what that next call will bring.

We also know reducing the high prescribing rates of opioids remains a work in progress. A recent investigation into all areas of prescribing – medical and dental included – showed that enough prescriptions are being written for half of all Americans to have one.

For all the challenges to those in recovery, the impact on the families of those we’ve lost to addiction has been equally difficult. Unable to hold funerals or to gather with friends and families, many people have cobbled together makeshift, socially distant memorials. Some people’s families put candles in their yard. One family had friends drive to a cemetery and stay in their cars while they buried their son.

The time to act is now.

Specifically, more resources are needed to build capacity for identifying and treating OUD, particularly among people of color. We must continue to limit opioid prescribing and educate doctors and dentists about alternatives for pain management.  And we must reduce the stigma that too often prevents people from seeking help. At DentaQuest, we and our employees are taking a simple pledge to eliminate harmful, stigmatizing terms when discussing addiction. We hope the many other good-hearted Massachusetts employers will do the same.

Finally, for families who lost someone to addiction, there is deep trauma associated with the inability to say goodbye in the way that they need. The way their loved one deserved. They have been robbed of something so necessary by COVID-19.

That is why it is our hope that we will come together as a community – as soon as it is possible – for a day of remembrance for all those lost during the COVID-19 crisis, including those lost to addiction. It could include a public ceremony for all to watch and pause and remember. Every family deserves a day to honor their loved one, not in isolation, but supported by family and community.

September was National Recovery Month, and it was like no other before it. The pandemic hasn’t erased the opioid epidemic. It has only increased the challenges for those who need treatment and services. We must continue to support those in the ravages of this still raging epidemic.

And by coming together to honor the loved ones we have lost during these difficult times, perhaps we can help the healing of all those who have been left to move forward in their memory.

Steve Pollock is the president and CEO of DentaQuest and Joanne Peterson is the executive director of Learn to Cope. Pollock is the board chair and Peterson is a board member of the RIZE Massachusetts Foundation.