The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recognizes Kentucky as ground zero of the opioid overdose epidemic.
Over the years, federal and state governments have invested millions of dollars into solving the crisis.
It was working.
Overdose death dropped from 2017 to 2019 nationwide.
By the end of 2019, health experts were wary as data trends displayed an increase in overdoses. However, the spike in overdose deaths the country experienced when the pandemic began was more than bargained for.
“2020 is going to prove to be one of the worst, if not the worst, year for overdoses probably since we’ve been keeping track of it as a society,” said Matt Brown who is the Senior Vice President of Administration at Addiction Recovery Care (ARC). “We’ve lost more people this year than probably the other nine years I’ve been working combined.”
In December, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a health advisory after new data leading up to May 2020 revealed drug overdose deaths increased by 21% in the United States.
This is the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.
In Kentucky, deaths began climbing in March after the state went into lockdown as Gov. Andy Beshear attempted to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Brown said resulting stressors like social isolation, economic instability, and general insecurity about the future contributed to the increase.
The shutdown also disrupted access to substance abuse treatment resources like narcotics anonymous meetings.
The combination of factors was deadly, according to Brown.
“If somebody is in addiction or teetering on the verge of a relapse and are now sitting at home all day, that creates an environment for a relapse or overdose,” Brown said.
Toddra Curry, who recently celebrated four years of sobriety after battling addiction for over a decade, said the impact was immediate.
“I had four friends overdose in one week. Every day of the week someone was dying,” said Toddra Curry.
Curry works as the residential coordinator at ARC’s Creekside Center. Not only was she losing friends to overdose, but she was also watching clients leave treatment.
“It was really scary because so many people left treatment and relapsed,” she said. “Now they’re gone and they don’t get another chance.”
Curry said harm reduction organizations quickly got to work when the state shut down. They found ways to adapt to the new restrictions to continue helping those battling substance abuse.
When they couldn’t hold face-to-face meetings, they offered virtual ones.
“It’s helped, but it’s a lot different,” Curry said. “They say the opposite of addiction is connection, but it’s just been really hard to do that because of COVID.”
The resource was available, but not everybody used it. Not everybody liked it. So, while it may have helped prevent some overdoses, others still fell victim to the disease.
“We’ve lost a lot of people just because they couldn’t make it to meetings. Those meetings are important,” said Lamont Connor, who has been sober for three years. “The pandemic has been really challenging.”
The expansion of telehealth in 2020 made treatment options more accessible.
In the early months of the pandemic, many centers temporarily closed or stopped accepting new patients. In this community, any delay in access to treatment can mark the difference between life or death.
“When people call, it’s like we need to get them in a bed today because they might change their mind in three hours,” Curry said.
Addiction Recovery Care is among those responding to a growing need for addiction treatment options.
The company opened multiple new addiction treatment centers in 2020.
“The need for drug addiction treatment exists more now than ever because of COVID,” said John Wilson, the CEO of ARC’S Crown Recovery Center.
Crown Recovery Center is a 756-bed addiction treatment center on the former campus of St. Catharine’s College. It opened in November 2020.
Wilson said he doesn’t regret opening in the middle of the pandemic. He said he believes it was pertinent they not delay the opening.
“This is a life or death issue for the people who are here,” Wilson said. “The longer we wait, the more people die. That’s just the reality and that’s not an exaggeration. That’s what we see in the community.”
Crown Recovery Center will be one of the largest addiction treatment centers in the United States once it opens to full capacity. Patients have access to healthcare, job training, and peer support within the campus.
“This is a healthcare facility. What we want to do is make sure they can receive treatment not only for drug addiction but for the underlying issues in their lives that may have led them to addiction to begin with so we can make sure when they go back to their life that they have the best chance of success,” Wilson said.
Crown Recovery Center has adjusted to meet safety measures while trying to retain as much of the pre-pandemic normalcy as possible.
Most notably, many of their group meetings are in person, but staff members will often join via Zoom as the center works to reduce the number of people entering and exiting the campus daily.
Wilson said harm reduction experts have continuously stepped up to adapt to the changes of 2020 and will continue to do so in the future.
As the months have passed, he said they’ve begun witnessing a drop in overdose death rates and an increase in people seeking out treatment.
Though overdose rates have not returned to pre-pandemic levels, Wilson said this is proof their efforts are working.