Why experts say the pandemic is causing more people in the bay area to relapse and overdose on drugs

Non-fatal opioid overdoses in the bay area up by 35% from 2019
Posted at 6:37 PM, Jan 08, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-08 18:53:42-05

TAMPA, Fla. — The pandemic has been tough for many of us, especially for those struggling with opioid addiction in the bay area. Throughout the pandemic, we’re seeing an increase in people overdosing and dying from opioids.

ABC Action News In-Depth reporter Anthony Hill dug into some of the reasons behind the recent surge in drug overdoses and what’s being done to help you, or a loved one struggling with addiction.

“She was staying with a mutual friend.” It’s still very fresh in Danielle Owen’s mind as she recounts a tragic story of personal loss. Owen says her friend’s husband found her friend unconscious on the kitchen floor and immediately called 911, but then, she received a phone call with the worst news. “I got a call that within the hour she had passed.” Owen’s friend had died from a drug overdose. The loss of her friend made her feel helpless. “What do I do? Run to her rescue? There was nothing I could do at that point to save her,” she said.

Unfortunately, the bad news did not stop there. Less than a month later, Owen received another call saying the husband of Danielle’s friend, who had found his wife dead, also overdosed and died. “He had been in treatment in Orlando for about six months,” said Owen. They sadly left behind a little girl.

It may be a new year but we are still going through the same pandemic and it turns out that since the pandemic began, more people in the bay area are overdosing and dying from opioid addiction.

The Florida Department of Health did an investigation on opioid overdoses in our area. They compared the months of January to June of 20-20 with the same six months in 2019 and the results are not good. We’re experiencing a 35% increase in non-fatal opioid overdoses in the bay area. In most cases, the drug of choice is a synthetic opioid called Fentanyl, which is 80 to 100 times stronger than morphine.

So why are we seeing an increase in opioid-related overdoses in our area? Experts tell me it could have everything to do with the stresses of the pandemic. “People are alone in their homes, they’re isolated.” Linda McKinnon is the president and CEO of Central Florida Behavioral Health Network Inc. She says one of the main reasons why more people are overdosing is because of the stress and isolation brought on by the pandemic making the temptation that much harder to self-medicate. “So that’s where we’re seeing more people die because there’s no one to recognize that they’re overdosing,” said McKinnon.

Her organization has been doing everything they can to ensure that people struggling with addiction still have resources during the pandemic.“Everything has gone virtual. So now you can attend an AA meeting any time of the day, 24/7, happening across the country just by going online,” she said.

Though virtual sessions have made getting help more accessible, many people prefer the social element of physically being with other people to support them. “I can’t imagine being early in recovery having to do everything virtually. There’s a lack of accountability with everything. I mean, it’s a challenging time for everybody right now,” said Stephen Sundquist from Clean Recovery Centers.

Sundquist has lost many people in his life to drug addiction. “It’s been childhood friends from high school, people that have been sober for multiple years going back out, relapsing and dying. I mean, no one is exempt,” he said.

Another reason why suffering with addiction during this pandemic is so difficult is because of the lack of space in transitional homes due to Covid-19 restrictions. “We have people that call every day that we have to just say ‘we’re sorry, we can’t help you’ and we try to refer them to other agencies and then they usually say ‘well, we’ve already called those agencies and they can’t help us either,” said Dr. Tom Atchison.

Before the pandemic, New Beginnings of Tampa could house over 200 people. Now, they can only hold 150.

Dr. Atchison also says the lack of jobs available in the bay area during this pandemic is also affecting recovery. People who struggle with addiction do best when they have a schedule to follow.

There are three ways to help you or someone you know with addiction:

ONE: social activities are extremely important. Continue with recovery support meetings, even if it’s virtual.

TWO: Throw away all medications you DON’T need. This will help minimize temptation

THREE: if you live with someone struggling with drug addiction, always have Narcan on hand. Narcan is a nasal spray that literally reverses an overdose, potentially saving someone’s life.

Experts say having community connections and spreading love is, perhaps, the most powerful thing you can do. Owen says, compassion is essential. “Showing each other a little bit more compassion and patience because everybody is struggling with something,” she said.

Sundquist says it’s important to check in on loved ones. “Suffering grows in silence and everybody knows someone that’s struggling with addiction. So, let’s help that someone today because that someone might get high tonight for the last time,” he said.

Are you or someone you know struggling with addiction? Here are some local resources

Central Florida Behavioral Health Network Inc.
(813) 740 – 4821

Clean Recovery Centers
(813) 743 – 3191

Harmony Hills Behavioral Health Primary Mental Health Facility
(321) 384 – 9977

Crisis Center of Tampa Bay
1 Crisis Center Plaza, Tampa, FL 33613
(813) 964 – 1964