Local News

Opioid overdoses spike during pandemic

Posted February 2, 2021 8:17 p.m. EST

— For people already battling substance abuse, the coronavirus pandemic has created a whole new set of barriers to recovery.

Hospital emergency rooms across North Carolina saw a 23 percent increase in opioid overdose patients from 2019 to 2020, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Nationwide, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report more than 81,000 drug overdose deaths from June 2019 to May 2020, the highest figure ever recorded in a 12-month period.

"Everybody's forgotten about [opioids], but that is really killing more people than the COVID, " said Diane Blalock, whose son, 33-year-old Michael Blalock was addicted to opioids for most of his adult life and died after ingesting fentanyl in November.

Diane Blalock said she and her husband rushed to the home where their son died.

"I just looked at him and said, 'I'm sorry, Michael. Sorry I couldn't do more,'" she said. "He looked so peaceful."

Justin Garrity, rapid response administrator of Raleigh-based addiction recovery program Healing Transitions, said that the number of people Wake County EMS has referred to the program for help after surviving an overdose has jumped 30 percent in the past year.

"Mental health for the whole time or population has really been challenging, and so, when you added a substance use disorder on top of it, it certainly doesn't make anything better," Garrity said.

Experts say isolation and job loss have contributed to the increase in overdoses – and fewer friends are around to help someone who does overdose. The pandemic also has severely limited treatment options.

"We're all about access," Garrity said. "During this pandemic, we've had to reduce the number of beds that we can provide to keep current participants safe."

Support meetings are held over Zoom, which he said makes it more difficult for participants.

"That's really not the same as the in-person meetings," he said. "Here you have someone struggling trying to connect. There's barriers. There's many more barriers for that connection."

Blalock has created a nonprofit called Chasing Michael in her son's memory to raise money to help other families struggling with addiction.

"The funding is gone because all the funding is going to COVID, which I understand," she said. "But it's like the addiction process is just put on the backseat. Everybody’s forgotten about that."

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