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Prevention Coalition – COVID and the opioid crisis

By Christy Smith

As a certified prevention specialist, I educate the community about opioid misuse and abuse, drug overdoses and offer training on how to administer Narcan to someone who is overdosing. Now I must educate on why COVID-19 is fueling the opioid crisis, and how our community can help those struggling. First … data is needed.

Since 2015, the Tennessee Department of Health has seen an increase in overdose deaths from 1,451 to 2,089 in 2019. The data is collected in every county. All drug overdose deaths are categorized into five types: all drug, opioids, pain relievers, heroin, and fentanyl. In 2019, Unicoi County saw six overdose deaths. These included the use of opioid, pain relievers, fentanyl and stimulants.

The American Medical Association states that nearly 40 states reports increases in overdoses since the pandemic. During COVID-19, the Tennessee Department of Health’s data shows that from March to June 2020, Tennessee saw a 33 percent increase in nonfatal opioid overdoses compared to 2019 data for those same months. Forty-four percent of nonfatal overdoses increased in ages 18-44. Much of the increase in fatal overdoses can be attributed to illicit use of fentanyl.

So why is COVID-19 fueling the fire? There are several factors that contribute to the overdoses: personal and work-related stress, dealing with social isolation, coping with mental illness alone, being bullied, and overcoming/managing physical diseases. These are all challenges that can trigger substance misuse and abuse. Social distancing is no easy task for someone who needs communication and contact. Someone who is dealing with anxiety and stress needs friendship and conversation. Someone who is bullied needs someone to understand and listen. Someone coping with mental illness needs medical support and understanding. Someone who has an addiction needs family and peer support. And those with physical diseases need exercise and emotional support.

As a community, we need to listen, talk, and support anyone who is experiencing a disruption in their mental health. We need to fight stigma, help those in recovery, and we need to call our neighbor. The Unicoi County Prevention Coalition has DAA meetings every Saturday at noon. If you know someone who needs support, please let them know. Our office is at 105 Rock Creek Rd. Suite 4 next to Nationwide Insurance.

The old adage, “It takes a village to raise a child,” is more important today than it was in the 1970s on the southside of Erwin. We as a community must work together to combat drug abuse, understand mental health and addiction, and aid those in recovery. If we turn a blind eye, we are only exacerbating the issues.

We will see increases in violations among youth/adults and overdoses in our county until we decide to incorporate drug court/recovery court, youth diversion programs, recovery groups, and mentor programs for youth. If we start today, drug abuse among youth will decrease. But it takes a community to first acknowledge the problems.

Next month, we will talk about harm reduction and Sherry Barnett, our regional ROPS (Regional Overdose Prevention Specialist). Until then, stay safe and healthy.