As people track which events are canceled, whether school will start on time or how far apart diners must sit in restaurants, it’s important to remember that West Virginians are still overdosing on drugs.
The novel coronavirus dominated life this spring and now into the early days of summer, but the rest of life goes on, and forgotten problems must still be dealt with.
As noted by Charleston Gazette-Mail reporter Caity Coyne, paramedics across West Virginia responded to 923 calls about people suspected of suffering an overdose in May. That was close to a 50% increase over last May and 200 calls more than in any other month in the last two years, according to data from the West Virginia Office of Drug Control Policy.
Emergency room visits for potential overdoses statewide increased last month to 663, which is also the highest number for the last two years.
Overdose cases are increasing nationwide, said Robin Pollini, a harm reduction expert and associate professor at the West Virginia University School of Medicine. Experts predicted overdose cases would increase as the coronavirus spread.
“COVID-19, the pandemic, is a very, very serious thing, but the whole time that it’s going on, all these health issues we already had have continued also going on in the background,” Pollini said. “We need to figure out how we respond to COVID-19 and continue treating those other ailments. How are our resources distributed? How do we do the jobs we have to do every day, with (a pandemic) on top?”
Isolation from shutdowns and quarantines can be a trigger for relapse, Pollini said. That can be dangerous because tolerance lowers as users wean off drugs.
“I think people who have gotten into recovery and who have gotten clean in the last few months are some of the strongest people I know,” said Sarah Cordwell, who co-founded the Solutions program and has been in long-term recovery for more than six years. “I don’t think — I wouldn’t have been able to do that.”
Many support groups and rehabilitation programs across the state transitioned to online sessions, through video conferencing and call-ins instead of physical, in-person meetings, Coyne reported.
Cordwell said that wouldn’t have worked for her early in recovery.
“I needed that in-person. That face-to-face access to other people in recovery was really instrumental to my success, and I know that’s true for others as well,” Cordwell said. “Some support has been lost behind COVID-19, so I am, we are, seeing some people in recovery start to use again. It seems obvious.”
It appears the law of unintended consequences has kicked in. Responding to one problem in a complex system brings about results — good or bad — that were not foreseen. While government officials and others were so focused on preventing the spread of the coronavirus, attention to other problems got left behind, and those problems got worse.
The thing to do now is remember that ignoring problems does not make them go away. The social problems we had before the coronavirus hit are still here, hanging around in the background and apparently getting worse because they are forgotten.
So, while public health officials focus on when a second wave of COVID-19 will strike, they must remember that longstanding problems remain and must be addressed before they emerge again and make the COVID-19 second wave look like a nuisance.