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Overdoses continue amid pandemic

Increased isolation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted people with substance use disorders, local mental health officials said.

In Trumbull County, accidental drug overdose deaths increased in 2020, over data from 2019 and 2018, but the number has not risen to the highs of 2017, according to data provided by local health officials.

There were 90 confirmed fatal overdose deaths in Trumbull County in 2020, and 17 unofficial drug overdose deaths. If the unofficial tallies are confirmed, there will have been 107 overdose deaths in the county in 2020.

In 2019, there were 92 accidental drug overdose deaths, and there were 76 in 2018, and 135 in 2017. There were 879 overdose encounters in hospitals in the county in 2020, according to health data. The majority of the fatal and non-fatal overdoses were in the 44446 zip code in Niles and Weathersfield, and in the Warren / Howland / Champion ZIP codes of 44483, 44484 and 44485. The majority of the overdose deaths were caused by fentanyl, or fentanyl mixed with other drugs.

MIXTURE OF DRUGS

In Mahoning County, 107 accidental fatal overdoses were recorded through November in 2020, and December numbers have not yet been confirmed. There were 106 deaths in the county in 2019, 117 in 2018, and 112 in 2017. The majority of deaths in Mahoning County involved fentanyl, statistics show.

In both counties, the presence of cocaine in the deaths was prevalent, and prescription drugs also were present.

April Caraway, executive director of the Trumbull County Mental Health and Recovery Board, said she sees a “direct correlation between COVID-19 and overdoses, and isolation caused by the pandemic is definitely a factor.”

When someone is in isolation, Caraway said, they are more likely to die if they overdose because there is no one around to get help or administer naloxone, an overdose reversal drug available to anyone who wants some through local health departments.

Angela DiVito, executive director of the Coalition for a Drug-Free Mahoning County, said there may not have been a surge in overdose deaths in the county, but the pandemic is affecting people with substance use disorders, and causing spikes in substance use.

“As you can see, Mahoning has not experienced the surge in deaths that some areas have. However, we have had a significant increase in people relapses or incidents of individuals developing substance use disorder within the timeframe of the pandemic,” DiVito said.

MEETING CHALLENGES

While there are options for online meetings, issues with access and the effectiveness of the meetings versus in-person meetings is questionable, Caraway said.

“It is different, face-to-face,” Caraway said. “We ask people to do 90 meetings in 90 days at the beginning of their path to recovery. But some have problems with minutes on their phones or band width.”

While online meetings can be convenient for some, they lack in more intimate interactions, DiVito said.

“You can access the meetings 24/7, so that can be helpful for on-demand support. But, where it falls short is with interactions. During live, face-to-face meetings, individuals are more likely to connect with someone more experienced who might notice a newcomer and reach out,” DiVito said. “The apps don’t know if you are a single mom really struggling, but in-person, another single mom more experienced with recovery might recognize that and extend some extra, one-on-one help. The personalized aspects of the meetings make them work.”

The interactions from meetings can replace the urges to use drugs or alcohol.

“It’s all about a neurotransmitter (chemical) called dopamine in the brain,” DiVito said. “We know things like socialization, good food and physical activity can trigger the dopamine release, and dopamine is also triggered by alcohol and other drug use. When a person can’t do things like socialize or exercise, the brain looks for other options to release dopamine. That’s why we see increases in substance use during a pandemic, and why it is so devastating to our recovery community to not be able to hold meetings and socialize to support each other.”

There is room in the Mahoning Valley in outpatient and detoxification programs, both officials said.

Organizations in the Valley are working to let people know how to get help, with commercials, billboards, mailers and social media posts.

DiVito said helpful groups on Facebook include TGCHHO (Trust God, Clean House, Help Others), Friends of Bill and Bob and Today’s Hope Recovery. Helpful recovery support apps include Celebrate Recovery, Sober Tool and Let GOH.

Anyone can call the Help Network of Northeast Ohio at 211 to connect to a myriad of services, including mental health, substance use recovery and suicide prevention. Peer supporters are also available to help those new to recovery navigate the waters.

The Warm Line, a peer-to-peer service that connects people struggling with mental health, substance use issues or who just need someone to talk to, is available at 1-866-303-7337 from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. Monday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. Saturdays.

The Help Network of Northeast Ohio, which can connect people to mental health and substance use disorder support, a suicide hotline and other supports, is available 24/7 by dialing 211.

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