The Times News –

The coronavirus is returning Beaver County to some of the darkest days of its fentanyl crisis, killing two residents every week and sickening about two every day.

Overdoses and overdose deaths are happening at a rate that hasn’t been seen since 2017, at the height of the opioid epidemic in western Pennsylvania. Doctors, law enforcement and drug and alcohol experts all point to the same reason: COVID-19.

“Some folks say that the opposite of addiction is connection,” said Dr. Mark Fuller, medical director of addiction medicine at Allegheny Health Network’s Center for Inclusion Health. “Connecting with a therapist or other friends in recovery or your 12-step meeting. Those connections are a really powerful part of recovery and really a key step in helping people stay clean and sober. That’s been taken away from them with quarantine.”

Beaver County was a harbinger of the opioid epidemic in 2016, when 102 people died from an opioid overdose. The crisis peaked in Beaver County in late 2016 and early 2017, when at least 30 people died each quarter from an overdose.

Overdoses and overdose deaths have steadily declined since that peak. In 2017, 758 people overdosed, while 82 died. Death numbers dropped by half in 2018, while the number of overdoses dropped slightly.

COVID-19 arrived in Beaver County in March, along with new ways of life, such as social distancing and quarantining. And for people who rely on social interaction to stay sober and clean, those two things changed everything.

Addiction experts were hopeful after 2018, when overdoses dipped across the region, said Dr. Jody Glance, medical director of UPMC Western Psychiatric Hospital addiction medicine services.

Then came COVID.

“In a nutshell, oh yeah,” Glance said, referring to an increase in overdoses due to the coronavirus. “It’s social isolation. We know that’s a risk factor for substance use and relapse. By the nature of the pandemic, people are socially isolated to a degree that we really haven’t seen before.”

Glance said overall, it looks like overdose deaths are up about 13 percent since the start of the pandemic.

“This is not an ideal time to be socially isolated with everything going on,” Glance said. “People are more likely to be using alone right now, and therefore are less likely to have someone to call for help or use a reversal drug.”

In Beaver County, overdose deaths are up 30 percent from the first three months of the year.

“COVID has sucked the wind out of every other issue,” Beaver County District Attorney David Lozier said. “Now this year, the numbers are going up like 2016 and the first half of 2017.”

Lozier said that the mental toll of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc throughout the county.

“We’re seeing an increase in domestic violence, Childline and child abuse calls, a worsening mental health picture and a worsening drug and alcohol pictures,” Lozier said. “The people who need support services or who are in treatment … it’s all been by phone. They haven’t had the in-person contact they need.”

That lack of contact has impacted even those who have been in recovery for years, said Kate Lowery, an administrator with Beaver County Behavioral Health. Clients she thought were stable and strong in their recovery have relapsed and case managers are busier than ever, she said.

Fuller said he’s heard similar stories across the region.

“I’ve seen people who have been clean and sober for years and years and years relapse,” Fuller said. “Usually, after one to five years of recovery, most people are pretty settled. We were not prepared for this.”

Providers were able to adapt relatively quickly to move from in-person services to telemedicine visits — allowing patients to receive counseling or consultation through a phone or video call — and that’s resulted in patients and doctors connecting more regularly with patients, he said. Telemedicine has helped decrease the percent of cancellations from 25 percent to 7 percent because it eliminates transportation and patients who were dealing with transportation issues.

Lowery and Fuller both said that some people dealing with addiction need the in-person contact. They suggested finding 12-step programs that are holding sessions outdoors, in a socially distant manner.

“It’s wonderful we’ve been able to convert to these tele-platforms, but it’s very stressful. Our whole environment has changed,” Lowery said. “Someone who has been struggling to have social support, it would would stand to reason that you’re feeling even more isolated.”

And that’s the problem that is plaguing Beaver County’s recovery community — isolation.

“People are home, they’re stressed, isolated and not reaching out,” Fuller said. “They’re reaching to drugs and alcohol.”

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Post expires at 12:44pm on Tuesday, September 7th, 2021

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