Before there was the Covid-19 pandemic, there was the drug epidemic — a health and social battle that was ongoing when the virus arrived — and experts say that Covid-19 has worsened the problem of substance abuse.
"People are in isolation. They are at home — they don't have jobs. They are starting to use more, and they are not accessing care the way they have before. I think our patients are sicker," said Ann-Marie Foster, the president and chief executive officer of Phoenix House New York, which has inpatient sober houses and outpatient care facilities on the South Fork and elsewhere on Long Island.
New York State data over the past year shows that in Suffolk County, several indicators of the depth of substance abuse have "significantly worsened." A Suffolk County task force on addiction released a report in December showing that year over year, by July of 2020, fatal overdoses had risen from 125 to 180. Nonfatal overdoses rose from 695 to 809, and "Narcan saves" — referring to the number of times the drug naloxone was used to revive someone experiencing an overdose — went from 443 in July of 2019 to 462 in July of 2020.
On the subject of Narcan, Ms. Foster reported that in many overdose cases during the pandemic, "Other people weren't around, so there was no one to call the police to use Narcan."
She said that pandemic restrictions meant that outpatient health care services shifted largely to telemedicine, and residential facilities, like Phoenix House itself, were limited in their ability to take in new inpatients. Before Covid-19 hit, "we were as low as 20 patients," Ms. Foster said. "Today we're at 40."
"Addiction is the kind of thing where you can maintain sobriety" in group settings, she said. Phoenix House serves men ages 18 to 35 in residential and outpatient settings. "People learn and do better in treatment when they have commonalities," Ms. Foster added.
"We are open, we are a safe facility, we have protocols, and we have the vaccine," she said.
Steve Chassman, the executive director of LICADD, the Long Island Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, said his organization is also seeing the devastating trend.
"When the state shut down, liquor stores were deemed essential businesses," he said. "Anytime you have a heightened state of fear and anxiety, social isolation, and a great fear of uncertainty, these have always been the breeding grounds for self-medication."
"It's not that someone who uses drugs is a bad person. The human condition, when forced into periods of discomfort, seeks comfort," Mr. Chassman later continued. "If you didn't have good coping strategies a year and two months ago, this has been a very difficult year for you."
People who are prone to addiction, and young people as well, are also seeing and hearing conflicting messages, he said, particularly with regard to New York State's legalization of recreational, adult-use marijuana and sports betting.
That addiction has worsened in recent months caught the attention of the Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center, which started a new group to battle substance abuse, the Center of It All Recovery Group. Weekly meetings are Mondays at 7 p.m. at the Bridgehampton facility, starting this week, and are led by Kim Jones, a certified peer recovery advocate.
"Recovery is at the center of everything that is involved in a recovering addict's life," Ms. Jones said in a statement. "We are very happy to be able to start our own recovery group at the center. Our new department is to educate the community on the latest drug trends and available services for support."
Ms. Foster, of Phoenix House, said the conversations on drug and alcohol abuse "need to be local" in order to effect change. "We have great services and facilities right in Suffolk County, but we have such high numbers of opioid overdoses. People need to know they have resources."
For those seeking help, Phoenix House can be reached by phone at 888-671-9392 or by email at [email protected]. LICADD's website is licadd.org and its 24-hour phone number is 631-979-1700. The Bridgehampton Child Care and Recreational Center's website is bhccrc.org and its phone number is 631-537-0616.