Hamilton County overdoses spike during COVID-19 pandemic as leaders worry about long-term effects for people in recovery

Staff Photo by Dan Henry / Hamilton County EMS Station 9 paramedic Ian Stearns explains how Narcan works on Thursday, October 20, 2016.

Drug overdoses in Hamilton County are far outpacing numbers from last year as leaders working in addiction services and recovery worry about the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.

There have been 422 overdoses and 50 deaths in Hamilton County between Jan. 1 and Sept. 6 this year, compared to 260 overdoses and 40 deaths during the same time frame in 2019, according to data from the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation.

Paul Fuchcar, executive director of CADAS, or the Council for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Services, said his organization is seeing an increase in people relapsing within their first year of sobriety. Fuchcar is one of several local leaders raising the alarm about the dangers of addiction during the pandemic even as national attention on the opioid crisis has diminished.

"Addictions are every bit as active as they were two years ago when we were on every newspaper just about every week. And it's impacting every part of our community," he said. "It can be elderly. It can be kids. Addictions are still very present in our community."

Leaders said the ongoing pandemic - with the health risks, economic impacts and overall social anxiety - is only worsening existing challenges with drug abuse.

According to data from the Hamilton County Coalition, drug overdoses in the 10-county region the group serves surged in the late spring and early summer with 85 overdoses in April, 92 in May, 87 in June and 70 in July. There were 12 overdose deaths in April and 16 in May in the region.

Vanessa Spotts, regional overdose prevention specialist with the coalition, said that while Hamilton County had the highest numbers, her organization reported spikes across Southeast Tennessee.

"There has been a significant spike in overdosing in every county in our region," Spotts said. "The increase started around the end of March and the start of April. It was really just kind of hairy there for a moment with the number of overdoses that happened."

The pandemic has forced local groups to adapt to continue serving those in need of services.

The coalition's Nu-Start program connects a counselor to people who overdosed or family members of someone who died from a drug overdose, Spotts said. The counselor can connect people with rehabilitation services or help stabilize a family situation.

"Even the fatality of someone in your family can cause stress that may cause someone to use a substance to deal with that stress," Spotts said.

The coalition is now doing these visits virtually. Spotts is also doing the group's free Narcan training virtually. Those that complete the class can have their certificate and a free dose of Narcan dropped off at their doorstep or pick it up by scheduling a time with Spotts. She said she has arranged meetings to leave the certificate and the Narcan in the bed of her truck so someone can pick it up without having to make contact with another person.

Veronica Slack, founder of Recovery Journals and member of Narcotics Anonymous, said people in 12-step recovery groups are starting to build back momentum. Not being able to meet in groups presented challenges and many struggle to stay engaged with Zoom meetings.

"We lost our momentum," she said. "We all know if we do anything for 30 days, we start a new habit."

Slack said the groups will always comply with local guidelines around COVID-19, whether that is avoiding groups or wearing a mask, but many are ready to see each other face-to-face.

"We don't care if we have to wear trash bags and stand on the other half of the room. People contact is so essential to recovery," Slack said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.