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Columbus Was Making Progress On Fighting Drug Overdoses. Then COVID-19 Hit

Columbus Public Health on Parsons Avenue.
file photo

Betsy Baugh was in an addiction recovery program in 2018. She says she instantly made friends with a woman there.

"You meet so many different people from so many walks of life in recovery, but her and I just related a lot, we had daughters the same age, and we were both really serious about recovery," Baugh says.

Even after leaving the treatment program, Baugh and her friend, whose name WOSU is not sharing at the request of her family, stayed in touch. They would go to meetings together, and talk about their progress while their daughters played.

Then the pandemic hit, and opportunities for in person support came to a halt.

"In addiction, we are so isolated. And in recovery, we need to not be isolated," Baugh said. "And the pandemic really makes that difficult.

After months of not seeing each other, Baugh got a text from her friend in October that said, “I relapsed on Tuesday. It’s over now, and I’m not going to use again.” A few days later, her friend died of an overdose.

"Addiction is just, cunning, baffling and powerful," Baugh said. "It is something that you need to nurture your recovery every single day, and if you don’t, it will sneak up on you."

Layering the pandemic on top of the addiction epidemic proved a deadly combination: More Franklin County residents died of overdoses during the first nine months of 2020 than in the entire year prior.

Franklin County Coroner Dr. Anahi Ortiz says they saw a clear uptick in drug overdoses once the pandemic began – a trend reported nationwide.

"By end of August, early September, we already had the same amount of people who had died of overdoses for 2019," Ortiz said.

Credit Paige Pfleger / Data from Vital Statistics
Data from Vital Statistics
Overdose deaths in Franklin County were up in 2020 compared to 2019. Experts blame the pandemic.

Last year, even while Ohio as a whole saw overdose deaths fall, Franklin County’s death toll was still on the rise. At the beginning of 2020, local health officials felt they were starting to make progress, but Dr. Mysheika Roberts of Columbus Public health says COVID-19 effectively ended that.

"It severely impacted our ability to go out in the community and have interactions with individuals to help them with their disease of addiction," Roberts said.

Roberts says some addiction services closed or severely limited their offerings. Instead, they've tried doing outreach on the phone, or online.

"Despite the fact that we’ve made a variety of different alternative treatment and interactions available for them, it doesn’t have the same positive impact as that personal face to face connection," she says.

Treatment providers who have stayed open, like the Columbus needle exchange program Safe Point, have seen increased demand. Safe Point reported its number of daily clients nearly doubled: From January to March, they distributed 280,000 syringes, but in the last three months, that number is closer to 350,000.

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

Dwayne Steward of Equitas Health says needles were not the only item in high demand.

"The naloxone distribution has skyrocketed within safe point, just thinking about the height of the epidemic around April, May, we were distributing more naloxone than we did in all of 2019," Steward says.

Steward says during the pandemic, more people are using drugs alone. And the overdose antidote only works if someone else is present to dispense it.

As the pandemic rages on, Ortiz says overdose deaths have too.

"From December 1 to the 16th, we’ve already had 36 people die of overdoses," Ortiz says. "So that’s between two and three people dying a day."

Ortiz says it will be months before officials have the final count of just how deadly 2020 proved to be.