Dear friends and colleagues,
I’ve been on the front lines of COVID-19 since its early days, not as a physician or nurse but as a clinical interventionist attempting to assist those deep in the throes of addiction. I’ve been entrenched in what appears to be—is—a war on addiction.
Since March, I’ve traveled to 18 different states and touched almost every corner of Minnesota, helping individuals navigate the road from desperation to recovery. My family and friends have suggested I stay home to keep myself safe. That I cannot do. I made an agreement with myself when I began my career as an interventionist that I would not stop providing life-saving assistance unless people stopped calling for my service.
Instead, the calls have steadily increased. Families appear more scared and uncertain than I’ve ever seen them. Addicted individuals seem more hopeless, less encouraged by treatment and consumed with fear about what happens next. For those suffering from a substance use disorder, and the influx of those who will be, the unprecedented nature of these times is dangerously personal. So I’ve doubled down on my outreach, masking up, keeping safe distance and insisting that those with whom I meet I do likewise.
More than 81,000 people died of an alcohol or drug overdose between May 2019 and May 2020, according to the most recent preliminary data. This is the most ever recorded during a 12-month period.
Earlier last year, before COVID-19, there were hopeful signs in the nation’s long-running addiction struggle. In January 2020, the recovery community celebrated what looked like a turning point: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that overdose deaths in 2018 had declined 4 percent, the first drop in nearly three decades. Later, however, the 2019 data showed that overdose deaths had ticked up 5 percent with a record 72,000 dead. About two-thirds of those deaths were related to opioids, but deaths from stimulants such as cocaine and methamphetamine have also been rising quickly.
Just how much the pandemic exacerbated the drug crisis in 2020 is still coming into view, but the statistics look bleak. Expect to see an overall increase and expect to hear questions about whether it’s because of COVID-19. Well, the answer is of course yes. Months of social isolation, high unemployment and the diversion of resources to combat the virus have only amplified the drug crisis. Although there are vaccines now for COVID-19, there certainly isn’t one coming for the disease of addiction, which thrives on isolation, prefers shutdowns and nurtures fear: all hallmarks of the virus.
As COVID-19’s prevalence and control over our lives begin to fade in 2021 we will still face massive addiction in our country. So, what do we do? What’s the solution? As a community we must fight and not forget that recovery is possible, is attainable, so long as we stick together. Treatment is available and effective. Outstanding recovery professionals are ready and available to help those who are willing. Their commitment mirrors my own: Whatever it takes to help save as many as we can who might alternatively die from the disease of addiction or live far lesser lives.
Thank you for supporting us in our work. Thank you for doing your part. Thank you for believing in a better 2021 and beyond.