Fighting an Epidemic During a Pandemic

Indiana's opioid crisis has plagued the state for decades. The last few years saw record numbers of overdoses due to synthetic drugs, but at the end of 2019 things were looking up. But that all came crashing down with COVID-19.

Posted: Feb 7, 2021 10:29 PM

The Hoosier state, known as the Crossroads of America, connects the U.S. from one end to the other.

"We are a transportation, warehousing mecca, that's one of the biggest assets to our economy," said Indiana's executive director for drug prevention Douglas Huntsinger.

But that vital network also opens other pathways.

"It also is one of the biggest drivers in the illegal transportation of drugs," Huntsinger said.

Indiana's opioid crisis has plagued the state for decades. The last few years saw record numbers of overdoses due to synthetic drugs, but Huntsinger said at the end of 2019 things were looking up.

"We were seeing a decrease in our overdoses that were twice that of the national average," he said. "Opioid prescribing had come down about 23%."

But that all came crashing down with COVID-19.

"We like to say the opposite of addiction is not sobriety, it's connection and we know that people had a really difficult time staying connected over the last year."

The state now found itself fighting an epidemic within a pandemic. Substance abuse and mental health issues were skyrocketing.

Statewide emergency departments saw a nearly 50% increase in overdoses in 2020 and the 211 help hotline received more than 6,000 calls from July to December, Huntsinger said.

It's a increasing problem seen in our southwest Indiana counties as well.

"The amount of boredom individuals were going through, the stress that individuals were going through had a major impact on addiction," CEO of Evansville's Brighter Side Treatment Center Brandon Smiley said.

A recovering addict himself, he said isolation is a catalyst for addiction, and the pandemic has only exacerbated the problem.

"I can't go and do anything so now I have to keep my mind busy," Smiley said. "But then if I'm sober, then all the stress of bills, family, work, I can't do any of those things so then I want to do something to take that away from me."

While the pandemic's impact on Indiana's opioid crisis is still unknown, Governor Eric Holcomb's Next Level Recovery efforts are underway.

Since 2017, more than 56,000 Hoosiers have sought help through opioid treatment programs and now more than 1.6 million have access to addiction treatment through Medicaid.

"We have created the Indiana Recovery Hubs," Huntsinger said. "There are 60 organizations statewide that operate in 18 different regions."

Back in May, Holcomb announced nearly $1 million in funding for the distribution of opioid reversal agent naloxone across the state to ensure the medication reaches Hoosiers who are at risk of overdose.

On February 5, the state announced it will expand access to naloxone through the purchase of 24/7-access “NaloxBox” units. The state's partner, Overdose Life Line, said it intends to purchase 215 kits and place at least one in every county.

While the state tries to better the problem, Smiley said the best thing right now is finding that missing connection -- a new crossroads, through a network of healing.

"Let's fight the fight. 'You've got me, I've got you, let's do it' and that helps tremendously," Smiley said. "If you don't have moral support, you're not going to be successful."

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