While the COVID-19 pandemic has been the prime focus of public health officials for more than two months, the opioid epidemic has not disappeared, requiring leaders to keep planning as best they can for a time when the COVID-19 pandemic abates.
“Our primary focus in this pandemic right now is going to be getting into testing and contact tracing for COVID-19," Carroll County Health Officer Ed Singer, the top official at the Carroll County Health Department. But, he continued, "Every chance I get when I am talking to my staff or when I am talking to elected officials, I say, ‘Don’t forget, we have this other epidemic going on that we still need to think about in the back of our minds.’”
If there is a silver lining, it’s that the slightly downward trend in overdose numbers for Carroll County has continued in early 2020 and through April, according to the latest statistics reported by the Carroll County Sheriff’s Office.
That report shows that while there were a total of 130 drug and alcohol overdoses from January through April in 2019, there were 113 such overdoses January through April in 2020. Similarly there were 18 drug and alcohol overdose deaths in the first four months of 2019, and have been 13 such deaths in the first four months of 2020.
That’s in line with generally decreasing numbers in Carroll over the past year or so, and, according to Singer, while remaining cautiously optimistic, a sign that many of the efforts to combat the opioid epidemic may have been having an effect.
“My sense was, just based on the numbers and my feeling was we were really starting to turn the corner,” he said.
But it’s also not clear how much weight the new statistics should be given, Singer said, given the confounding factor of the COVID-19 epidemic.
“Quite honestly, I don’t know if we can compare statistical data from one year to another given the unusual circumstances that we’re all living in,” he said. “The fact is dealing with the pandemic has simply taken a lot of time and energy."
Additionally, many of the prevention efforts and outreach by health department peer counselors for those dealing with substance use disorders have been disrupted due to social distancing requirements.
“While we do still have peers available, we are doing a lot virtually,” Singer said. “We’re very hands-on and its hard to do a lot of the programming we would normally do in this social distancing environment.”
The Carroll County State’s Attorney’s Office’s addiction prevention efforts have similarly been disrupted.
Presentations in schools are not possible with schools out of session, but work with those people in the office’s early intervention program, which aims to get non-violent drug offenders into treatment rather than jail, continues with some modifications.
Using virtual meetings and check-ins has been a way to try and keep things working for those in the program, according to Carroll County State’s Attorney Brian DeLeonardo.
“We are still trying to keep that accountability and do those check-ins and make sure people are doing what they are supposed to do,” he said. “I am really encouraged to see people are able to stay on the recovery path and utilize services by phone and video conferences.”
DeLeonardo’s office is also promoting virtual meetings for those in Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs.
“I think like with everyone, it’s been difficult adapting to a difficult situation and accomplishing the same goal. But I think we’ve been doing that,” he said. “It’s allowed us to continue that downward trend in overdoses even in unusual times.”
Both DeLeonardo and Singer expressed pleasant surprise that the pandemic has not resulted in a spike in overdoses.
“You have to remember people are losing their jobs, people are disconnected, they are not having that peer group right there to support them,” DeLeonardo said. “Everything that could have resulted in a spike did not, and it’s a testament to how all the agencies have worked to fill the gaps during the COVID pandemic."
That being said, there is a lot of uncertainty going forward, according to Singer, not least of which involving just when health department resources will be able to return to their pre-pandemic missions.
“I don’t have a crystal ball and I can’t tell you what the health department will be required to do in September,” he said. "We may go from testing for COVID-19 to trying to prevent the spread to doing surveillance testing related to antibodies in people’s blood. If a vaccine comes out, we might be doing mass vaccinations."
And so it will not be automatic, and will require focus to return attention to the opioid epidemic when things return to normal, Singer said, and that’s something he is communicating to other officials whenever he can.
“We can’t take our focus off the efforts we have been making with public funding to ensure we get through the opioid epidemic,” he said. “That’s still going to need to be a priority as we get out of this.”