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‘It’s really been a tough time’: In Carroll County, a pandemic and an epidemic converge with recent spike in overdoses

From left, back row, Amanda Davis, Alyssa Du Biel, middle row, Morgana Davis, Sarah Davis, Dani Buhl, Samantha Calp, Bryan Herfurth, 4, his mother Katrina Shaeffer, Jackie Baker, and front row, Tammy Lofink, holding a picture of her son Robert Mason Lofink, and Valerie Spurrier, holding a photo of her daughter Kristin Marie Spurrier, as well as house mascot Bentley, photographed at R.M.L. or "Reclaiming my Life" sober house in Westminster. R.M.L. share it's initials with Lofink's son, Robert Mason Lofink.
From left, back row, Amanda Davis, Alyssa Du Biel, middle row, Morgana Davis, Sarah Davis, Dani Buhl, Samantha Calp, Bryan Herfurth, 4, his mother Katrina Shaeffer, Jackie Baker, and front row, Tammy Lofink, holding a picture of her son Robert Mason Lofink, and Valerie Spurrier, holding a photo of her daughter Kristin Marie Spurrier, as well as house mascot Bentley, photographed at R.M.L. or "Reclaiming my Life" sober house in Westminster. R.M.L. share it's initials with Lofink's son, Robert Mason Lofink. (Dylan Slagle / Carroll County Times)

On a winding, country road, just past the Sykesville Freedom District Fire Department, a billboard bearing the phrase “Addiction is a disease. Recovery is possible.” gives passersby a glimpse of an ongoing crisis that has plagued Carroll County for years.

With a silhouette of a young family looking far off into a body of water, the sign is one of six in the county that provides the most recent count of overdoses and lives lost. The numbers on the sign from January and February represent the second-highest two-month period of overdose deaths the county has seen in five years.

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In the shadow of the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid and heroin epidemic has been exacerbated, according to regional experts.

Brant Webb, the regional heroin coordinator with the Carroll County Drug task force, says the restrictions of the pandemic have made it difficult for recovery specialists to meet with clients face to face and to build a relationship with them — an essential part of maintaining sobriety for many. Overdoses for the first two months of 2021 are up more than 50% over the first two months of 2020 and Carroll has seen more than twice as many fatal overdoses (15) this year than the same time period last year, according to Carroll County Sheriff’s Office statistics.

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“The COVID-19 pandemic has definitely had an impact on overdose numbers,” said Webb. “The stronger drug sectors we’re seeing are having an impact. Fentanyl is a synthetic opioid, it’s 50 to 100 times more powerful than morphine, and it’s commonly seen in our overdoses.”

For those struggling with addiction, the pandemic has created a perfect storm of conditions for temptation or relapse. And for those who managed to stay sober, a blow to their mental health.

Jackie Baker, a resident of the Reclaiming My Life sober house, says she relapsed during the pandemic after being sober for a year. Within weeks of an initial shutdown in March, Baker lost her job, her car and almost her apartment.

“I tanked very quickly,” Baker said. “I went back to what I knew, which was drugs and alcohol.”

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On a sunny Friday afternoon, Baker and other residents of the two sober houses run by Rising Above Addiction, a nonprofit organization in Carroll County dedicated to helping those in recovery, gathered to talk about the hurdles those with addiction issues have faced during the pandemic.

“A lot of it was mental health,” Baker said of the toll of the pandemic, “and I think a lot of addicts do have mental health issues as well and that can trigger using when your mental health is not in good order.”

Tammy Lofink, the president and founder of Rising Above Addiction, says that isolation has been particularly tough for those in recovery who need support groups to help them maintain or achieve sobriety.

In Westminster, activists and members of the recovery network have worked to build a thriving community. A normal Friday night might entail a social event or a night out to the theater. On special occasions like New Year’s eve, folks might participate in a sober-a-thon.

“A lot of people who struggle with addiction rely on their meetings and being around other people in recovery,” Lofink said. “They go to meetings together and I think that’s taken a toll on a lot of people to be isolated and not to be around their networks.”

For the women running Rising Above Addiction and the two sober houses, grief provides motivation and the work in return provides closure. Lofink founded Rising Above Addiction on the one-year anniversary of the death of her son, Robert Mason Lofink, after whose initials the Reclaiming My Life sober house has been named. Lofink’s son died of a opiate and heroin overdose in 2014. He was 18 years old.

The other sober house, Keeping My Serenity, is named after Kristin Marie Spurrier, who is described by her mother Valerie Spurrier, a board member of the organization, as “a wonderful friend” who always went out of her way to help others. She succumbed to her addiction in 2017.

The sober homes are a haven for those who would otherwise have no other outlet during the pandemic. Upon entering the Reclaiming My Life sober house, a golden retriever might warmly greet visitors against the backdrop of laughing coming from women gathered in the living room or around the table of a kitchen. A picture of Robert Lofink hangs next to the entrance.

“I have a great fellowship of women around me and they’re very supportive,” said Baker, who came to the house in October after two months of treatment. “And I’ve had some struggles throughout the last month but I made it through.”

Alyssa Du Biel, the house director of Reclaiming My Life, says the conditions of social distancing caused her to go into depression and require mental health medication. There were days she wouldn’t get out of bed.

The toll on her mental heath made her struggle to remain sober all the more difficult, she said. She couldn’t understand that while all other outlets were shut down, liquor stores remained open and were seen as a necessity. Being stuck at home she wondered if she was going to relapse with limited options to distract her.

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Du Biel said of the shutdown. “It is a necessity for recovering addicts to go to meetings to be able to get out of the house to go for a walk. I mean, it’s that simple.”

Morgana Davis, who works at a treatment center in Sykesville and is a board member of the organization, says social-distancing regulations often limited the amount of treatment individuals could receive.

Davis says she knew individuals who couldn’t receive treatment because they tested positive for COVID-19 or because they exhibited symptoms of the virus.

“I couldn’t imagine what it was like for those people who had never been to an in-person meeting,”” Davis said. “Imagine deciding to stop using substances and having never experienced what it was like to go to an in-person meeting. And that’s like really damaging.”

Individuals early in sobriety are particularly vulnerable she said. In the past year, she had witnessed many walk out of treatment, specifically in response to receiving stimulus and unemployment checks.

“The stimulus check have severely damaged the recovery community,” Davis said.

Davis says she witnessed the damage first hand. After the first round of stimulus checks were dispersed, she saw individuals walks out of the treatment center, weeping, because they could not resist the trigger the money was providing them.

“Money is a huge trigger for people, especially in early recovery or even two, three years,” Davis said

Davis isn’t the only one to point out that the stimulus checks were a trigger for those struggling with addiction. Deputy State’s Attorney Edward Coyne said the county has also noticed a connection between the stimulus checks and overdoses.

Last spring, we noticed the spike in May of overdoses which correlated to the stimulus payments and in January there was a spike as well, which again, there was a stimulus payment,” Coyne said. “Our fear is that we’ll have a third spike as a result of people having extra money from the next round of payments.”

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Tim Weber, the community education liaison to the State’s Attorney’s Office, encourages families to keep an eye on their loved ones who are prone to substance abuse and to reach out to the health department if they know of someone who needs naloxone, a drug that treats narcotic overdose in an emergency situation.

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“What we’ve seen with the past two stimulus checks is that it can trigger some people that maybe even have not been using for a while or people that are actually caught up in active addiction to just go off the deep end,” Weber said. “It’s really been a tough time through the pandemic. It’s been tough for nonaddicts, so imagine what it’s like for addicts.”

Despite the struggles, the women of Rising Above Addiction says there is hope, especially in companionship. The women relied on each other to remain sober during the pandemic, calling each other, and encouraging each other to remain strong.

At the end of the day, that’s what recovery brings us, the opportunity to live on life, on life’s terms, even if there is a global pandemic,” Du Biel said. “I could be at home and still live a life of recovery. I could be at work and still live a life of recovery. I could be in a meeting and show the newcomer that no matter what, get through, it can be done.”

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