PHOENIX — Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, state officials have told Arizonans that they are safer at home, to wear a mask, and to avoid large crowds.
However, for those struggling with addiction and substance abuse issues amid an opioid epidemic, isolation is the exact opposite of what those individuals need, experts say.
By now, most people are familiar with the COVID-19 numbers that the Arizona Department of Health Services releases each day. That department also reports the number of drug overdoses known each month.
In March, when the pandemic began closing down businesses and the state, at least 473 people died from a drug overdose, a nearly 40% increase compared to March 2019.
While the headlines are focused on the COVID-19 pandemic, experts want people to know that the opioid epidemic is still devastating the state
"We got a lot of people into the opioid treatment plans and programs and then of course, this (the pandemic) happens," said Todd Vanderah, chair of the Pharmacology Department at the University of Arizona.
He said opioids in the state peaked in 2017 and 2018. Now, he is concerned about people potentially relapsing. The increase in overdoses, he said, is not surprising.
"It sadly makes sense in the fact that when people are depressed in general, or when they socially isolate or when they think there's like sort of general despair," Vanderah said. "'I may lose my job. Unemployment is going on. The world is... falling apart...' People sort of tend and trend to go to substances of misuse."
He believes that many of those who are struggling may be afraid to get help because of the dangers of the virus, too.
"Opiates naturally suppress our normal drive of breathing," Vanderah said. "And, of course, that's how people overdose. That, on top of COVID... it affects the lungs and your respiratory system and your cardiovascular system. So there's a big synergy between the two."
He believes, unfortunately, this trend of overdoses will likely continue given the level of uncertainty with the pandemic.
Christina Orellana, a primary therapist with the Scottsdale Recovery Center, said their office has moved many of their services from in-person to virtual using Zoom.
"In addition to the group work virtually, there is also individual sessions with therapists that we offer," she said. Going virtual also allowed them to expand their programming, including educational workshops for families to learn how to better support a loved one.
"To give structure in an unstructured world is a huge, huge part of this and what we offer here," Orellana said. "And I think teaching patients about acceptance over the things outside of their control too is a really big thing to learn in recovery, but especially in society as it is right now."
If a loved one is suffering with substance abuse, Orellana suggests listening to their struggles. Allow the person to talk and express what they are going through. Then, be ready and prepared to take action with them.
"'Okay, this is what we're going to do next. We're going to contact a treatment center. We're going to look to see what meetings are available online. We're going to talk to this person in recovery who would be able to be of support to you,'" Orellana said. "But just making sure there's a plan in place."
A plan to prevent the number of overdose deaths from climbing, when each statistic is a human life.
You can view ADHS' Opioid dashboard, here, as well as a list of community resources.
If you are looking for treatment in Arizona and nationally, here are some resources:
- FindTreatment.gov or 1-800-662-HELP (4357)
- OARLine: Opioid Assistance + Referral Line or 1-888-688-4222
- Substanceabuse.az.gov (Arizona prevention, treatment, and recovery resources)
- Arizona Substance Abuse Prevention Resource Hub (locations providing opioid treatment services)
- WeNeedtoTalkAZ.org (info on addiction, warning signs, and recovery resources)
- Dump the Drugs AZ (locations to safely dispose of unneeded medication)
- Scottsdale Recovery Center or 602-346-9142