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Coronavirus In Ohio: For People Struggling With Addiction, Isolation Can Be Deadly

Safe Point is Central Ohio's only needle exchange program.
Paige Pfleger
Safe Point is Central Ohio's only needle exchange program.

Christopher has been struggling with addiction since he was 14. He uses heroin, and he says things have been hard since the COVID-19 pandemic began.

"We cleaned libraries and they closed the library down and that kind of put me out of my living arrangements," he says. "So I had to move in with a friend of mine, and I’m staying in his basement, and it’s a kind of stressful thing on me and him."

WOSU is not using Christopher’s last name to protect his privacy. He says about a month ago he was trying to get into treatment, but he hasn’t been able to find a counselor who would meet up with him during the pandemic to get the process started.

"It’s like a real bad let down," he says. "Kind of turned the page a little bit and made me want to just not even think about it."

While the pandemic has changed everyone’s lives, the disruption to normalcy can be disastrous for people dealing with drug addiction. 

Christopher uses Safe Point, Central Ohio’s only needle exchange program. And Safe Point has been busier than normal in the last month, with about 100 people visiting each day they’re open.

"We’re seeing a lot of people coming through safe point who are needing our services right now, and we’ve seen an increase of around 30 folks a day who are new," says Dwayne Steward, director of prevention at Equitas Health, which runs Safe Point.

Steward says people have been respectful of social distance while waiting in line outside Safe Point. 

"Many of our folks are dealing with homelessness," Steward says. "Many of them have lost their jobs. Many of them have chronic illnesses they are dealing with. And I think this pandemic exacerbates that."

Record high unemployment is likely escalating the situation in Ohio. More than 1 million Ohio residents have filed for unemployment benefits in the last six weeks, since the state's stay-at-home order went into effect.

Research shows unemployment can make someone more likely to develop a dependency on drugs and trigger relapse.

"Connection is kind of the opposite of addiction," says Myles Stickle, director of behavioral health at Equitas. "So with the isolation that comes with quarantine, there’s just that much more of an opportunity for people to kind of fall back into old behaviors and for the disease of addiction to take over."

Since the pandemic hit, Equitas has moved all its therapy appointments to telehealth. Stickle says clients have lost church, socializing or sports, and need to come up with a new way to find support during the pandemic.

"There are the folks who are relapsing and are struggling because a lot of the supports and structures they’ve had in place haven’t been available," Stickle says. "And then a fair amount of people who are trying to avoid relapse."

Dr. Mysheika Roberts is the director of Columbus Public Health.
Credit Paige Pfleger / WOSU
Dr. Mysheika Roberts is the director of Columbus Public Health.

Central Ohio already has one of the highest overdose death rates in the state: while many counties saw that number drop last year, overdose deaths rose in Franklin County.

Columbus Public Health director Dr. Mysheika Roberts says the pandemic has contributed to that trend.

"We’ve definitely seen an increase in overdose deaths," Roberts says. "For the last four weekends, the Franklin County Coroner Dr. [Anahi] Ortiz has announced that we’ve seen a surge in overdose deaths. We’ve seen more than five overdose deaths in a 24-hour period."

From January to April 15, there was a 50% increase in fatal overdoses in Franklin County. 62 people died of overdoses in April alone, many of whom were younger than the average age seen in 2019, according to the coroner's office.

Roberts says that usually when there is an increase in overdose deaths, there is a corresponding increase in EMS runs and ER visits for overdoses. But during the pandemic, she says that’s not the case.

"In almost all the situations of the deaths, the person was using alone," Roberts says. "Which would be consistent with the stay-at-home order and the anxiety that some people are facing when they’re spending so much time alone."

Columbus Public Health is trying something new to reach people struggling with addiction at home. In the last three weeks, the department has mailed out 250 Narcan kits in hopes of slowing overdose deaths.

What do you want to know about the coronavirus in Ohio? Ask below as part of WOSU's Curious Cbus series.


Paige Pfleger is a former reporter for WOSU, Central Ohio's NPR station. Before joining the staff of WOSU, Paige worked in the newsrooms of NPR, Vox, Michigan Radio, WHYY and The Tennessean. She spent three years in Philadelphia covering health, science, and gender, and her work has appeared nationally in The Washington Post, Marketplace, Atlas Obscura and more.