I-Team: COVID-19 pandemic’s devastating impact on substance use epidemic


SPRINGFIELD, Mass. (WWLP) – For more than a year now, the focus in the medical community has been on the COVID-19 pandemic.

That meant time, money, and resources that normally would be used on the opioid epidemic, has been devoted to stopping the spread of the virus. The emphasis on social distancing forced individuals who needed help, into isolation, and the impact everywhere has been devastating.

“We’re seeing suicides skyrocket, we’re seeing utilization of substance abuse skyrocket, we’re seeing alcoholism skyrocketing,” said Hampden County Sheriff Nick Cocchi. “These are all effects due to the pandemic. The epidemic is at its all time high.”

Sheriff Cocchi and Sheriff Donalen picked up right away on the connection between the two health crises.

“I can’t even imagine having a significant diagnosis in that regard and then being forced to quarantine, being forced to separate myself from my family or my support groups,” said Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan. “So there’s no doubt in mind that there was collateral damage we will never be able to record.”

Tapestry in Springfield tracks overdoses in real time. According to this organization, there are now between 5 and 10 in downtown Springfield each day. Deaths from overdoses have also gone way up, as recently reported by the CDC. Over 81,000 drug overdose deaths occurred in the United States in the 12 months ending in May 2020, the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a 12-month period.

“Yeah I mean we’ve seen an increase in people starting to use again,” said Liz Whynott, Director of Harm Reduction Programming at Tapestry. “A lot of staff here have witnessed overdoses and lost people they’ve been close with, whether its in there professional or personal life.”

The further increase in fentanyl in the drug supply is the primary reason for rising overdose deaths.

“I think its safe to say now in our area, that all the heroin that is brought has fentanyl in it,” said Dr. Ari Kriegsman, Mercy Medical Center Substance Use Disorder Specialist.

Dr. Ari Kriegsman has seen first hand the digression of people with drug addiction during the pandemic, “I’ve just been seeing people who have been doing well for so long, people who were doing great, sober for 15 years, and they relapsed 9 months ago, its a really common narrative and I will see these people over and over again.”

With relapses going up, services that were designed to prevent them remain suspended.

“We used to have post release councilors bring them to meetings, connect to a sponsor, now we cant do those things anymore,” said Donealn. “Because the meetings aren’t happening, the groups aren’t coming together. They are losing that personal connection, the recovery community, and its making it very challenging for them.”

Sheriff Donelan doesn’t think real progress can be made on the opioid epidemic until most people are vaccinated and the pandemic ends. In the meantime, the hope is that more people will step up and help.

“Instead of pointing, let’s put our hand up and say, what I can do to help someone in need,” said Sheriff Cocchi. “That’s how we are going to get through this.”

“Its a problem that is not going away, said Sheriff Donelan. “It is going to be a matter of rebuilding things that have fallen backwards and reconnecting with people, and these people will be desperate for a connection believe me. I know a lot of these folks who have gone through this facility, they have struggled mightily and they will be looking forward to the chance at reconnecting just as much as we are.”

If you know anyone who may be struggling with an addiction, the state has a helpline you can call. Their number is 1-800-327-5050.

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