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Coronavirus isolation could mean death for America’s opioid addicts

April 25, 2020

Former opioid addict Brian McCarthy is set to celebrate his 11th year of sobriety at home without friends due to the pandemic -- a fact that scares him. Fentanyl (inset) is currently the leading cause of opioid deaths in the nation

WASHINGTON COUNTY, PA. — It is two days before Brian McCarthy is supposed to celebrate a very important occasion in his life: 11 years of sobriety. This kind of moment is typically shared joyfully with friends and fellow members of the recovery community.

Instead, McCarthy will be isolated, like most of us, away from the spread of the coronavirus. Currently holed up in his suburban two-story home with his wife and two children in Peters Township, a half-hour’s drive from Pittsburgh, he says this type of isolation is his biggest fear.

“It is usually such a time of celebration and reflection. It’s a really big deal because the clean time you achieve is so important. Heck, it has been as important if not more important than my birthday,” he said.

“Ironically enough, I was supposed to be celebrating my anniversary in the pen and I’m not even going to be able to do that this year and it sucks, if you want to know the truth,” he says of the monthly recovery group he leads at a super-max state penitentiary in nearby Greene County. “It sucks.”

Once, McCarthy used everything, including opioids. But his drug of choice, he said, was simple: more.

“I’ve seen this whole isolating thing and it is just, it’s toxic for us,” he said of his fellow former addicts. “I’m not going to get high over it. At least not today. But I mean, I got to be honest, if this were occurring a decade ago, I don’t know if I’d be able to do it.”

Enlarge ImageDrug addicts rely on in-person treatment to stay sober, a problem during quarantine.
In-person counseling for addicts has gone virtual during quarantine, and experts worry online treatment is insufficient.

Western Pennsylvania forms part of “addiction alley,” the portion of Appalachia and the Midwest where the opioid crisis has soared in the past two decades, partly caused by fentanyl, the synthetic drug that took more lives in this country in 2019 than road accidents, according to the National Safety Council.

Nationwide, data from the National Institute on Drug Abuse show, opioid-related overdose deaths have risen from 21,088 in 2010 to 47,600 in 2017.

Meanwhile, the deadly stimulant meth is also flooding this stretch of counties from Pennsylvania and Ohio to West Virginia and Kentucky. Between 2015 and 2019, the 23 drug task forces funded through the Ohio High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area agency saw a 1,600 percent jump in meth seized by local law enforcement.

Since late March, a stay-at-home order has kept most Pennsylvanians isolated from their family, friends, jobs, conveniences and simple basic routines. While the majority of them are doing what they can to impede the pandemic’s spread, for those in recovery or still using, separation could lead to potentially deadly consequences.

“I am concerned about clients relapsing and dying,” said Stacy Smith, a dual-diagnosis therapist working just across the Pennsylvania border at Signature Health in Ashtabula, Ohio, where state residents have been ordered to stay at home since March 23.

Stacy Smith (left), a substance-abuse therapist in Ohio, worries addicts will relapse while stuck at home. Rob Sanders, with Kentucky’s 16th Judicial Circuit, says drug busts are down but that doesn’t mean drug use isn’t up

Located in the grand old Hotel Ashtabula on Main Avenue, the health center offers psychiatry, substance-abuse services and primary care to recovering addicts, and is still taking new clients and treating regular clients — but now with little to no in-person interaction.

“Instead of walking in, they call or we do it through video so they don’t have to come in unnecessarily and potentially put themselves or others at risk,” Smith said.

While it’s too early to produce hard data on the number of relapses, Smith said she’s seen fewer people seeking services — and that concerns her.

“People are having anxiety and having depression,” she said. “People are at home with family members 24/7, which maybe they don’t normally do, so are drinking more. And maybe they’re not aware we’re open. I know I talked to a provider a couple of days ago who thought we were closed.”

While many counseling sessions are still continuing through video conferencing or phone calls, “for people early on in that recovery process, some of them aren’t really comfortable engaging in that,” she said. “We have some patients that we’re their only lifeline. Although we are still calling and checking on them, it’s not the same.

“A deadly disease,” Smith added, “will not stop an addiction.”

People are at home with family members 24/7 . . . so are drinking more says \Stacy Smith, a dual-diagnosis therapist.

Draw a line diagonally three hundred miles across Ohio from Ashtabula and you are in Covington, Ky., where Rob Sanders, attorney for the 16th Judicial Circuit in Kenton County, is looking at numbers that show drug-possession offenses are down dramatically.

Since March 26, Kentucky residents have been living under a stay-at-home order. But the drug bust numbers, Sanders said, are not telling the story of reduced drug use.

“I would estimate that we normally would get 20 to 30 felony drug possession arrests per week in this county,” Sanders said. “Right now we’re averaging five or six, maybe. Short of crashing into a police car, you are very hard-pressed to get yourself arrested for drug possession right now.

“I don’t think the drug users have stopped using just because of the coronavirus. I suspect there’s a lot of rampant drug use right now and there’s just a lot less police intervention. I’m not faulting the police because I wouldn’t want them to have any more interaction with strangers than they absolutely had to, but their proactive policing is way down.”

Sanders said only one out of their five local treatment centers has shut down.

“For the most part facilities are still up and operating,” he said. “They’re implementing precautionary measures as much as possible. Social distancing, wearing masks, things like that, doing video conferencing at least whenever possible.

“However, nobody has ever done drug treatment by video conferencing before, that I am aware of, so I don’t think anybody can definitively say how effective it is.”

Enlarge Image<strong>Inside Addiction Alley:</strong> A string of interconnecting counties located where Appalachia and the Great Lakes Midwest interconnect, "addiction alley" has some of the highest rates of drug addiction and overdose deaths in the nation, according to data calculated by researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago.

Inside Addiction Alley

A string of interconnecting counties located where Appalachia and the Great Lakes Midwest interconnect, “addiction alley” has some of the highest rates of drug addiction and overdose deaths in the nation, according to data calculated by researchers at NORC at the University of Chicago.

In late March, 300 inmates deemed no significant threat to public safety were released from the county detention center to protect them from possible COVID-19 infection in jail, Sanders said.

Most of them went to Life Learning Center, a local treatment clinic, and all but one did not stray.

Sanders said that woman just disappeared into thin air.

“She had initially reported and signed up for everything and was enrolled and involved, but at some point, she went home and relapsed and started using again and overdosed,” he said.

The treatment center was frantically trying to locate the woman until they got a call from her daughter, who said she was on a ventilator in a hospital.

“The daughter didn’t want the treatment center people or first responders out looking for her mother and risk exposing themselves unnecessarily by searching for her,” Sanders added.

The woman has since passed away, something he knows in normal circumstances would not have happened.

“She would have been incarcerated, but alive,” he states flatly.

Back in Pennsylvania, McCarthy has been helping prisoners with their treatment for the past nine years. He has also been helping himself in the process.

McCarthy, 45, said he began drinking at 11 when his mother died.

Ohio cops found this couple apparently overdosed — perhaps from fentanyl — with a child in 2016, bringing attention to the opioid crisis.

This 2016 photo taken by Ohio cops of an overdosed couple with a child in their car brought national attention to the opioid crisis.REUTERS

“I started smoking pot at like 13 and then I got into more and more drugs as time went by. I went to rehab the first time when I was 16, the second time when I was like 23, 24 and the last time I went was in 2009 and I’ve been clean ever since.”

McCarthy, who never served time for his drug offenses and now works as a teacher, still feels bound to his monthly recovery meetings at SCI Greene. And right now he’s anxious he can’t be with his guys — though not for the reason you might think.

“Those guys are incredibly grateful for us to come in there, there’s me and five other panel leaders. Every second Wednesday I go into the pen and give the inmates their meeting,” he said.

“I may laugh when I say this, it definitely helps me more than it helps them,” he said, clearly choked up.

“When I leave that place, I leave with so much gratitude, because when I go in there, it’s a monthly reminder of if I don’t continue to do the things that I’ve done to get to where I’m at today, that’s where I end up. I’m just one bad decision away from being in there. There’s nothing different from me and any of those inmates other than they got caught,” he said.

While “they’re stuck in their cells all day,” McCarthy said he’s stuck “in my head.”

And going to those meetings is what gets him out of himself, he said.

“It gets me around people. It gets them talking. And as ridiculous as it might sound, telling people what’s going on is the remedy of my problem. When I keep everything in, that’s when I use. When I get everything out and tell everybody what’s going on with me, that gives me the ability to not have to use.”

McCarthy said he probably won’t do anything special to mark his 11th year of sobriety, and that’s OK.

“I’m sure a lot of people will call me and I’ll spend a lot of time on the phone with people who are really important to me. And I’m just grateful for that.”

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