Friends, family members and those who have survived drug addiction will gather in memory of those who didn’t next month outside the McShin Foundation to dedicate a new memorial garden. They’ll tell stories, shed tears, and hope it doesn’t grow.
But figures obtained by the Richmond Times-Dispatch reveal a troubling trend: Emergency calls for non-alcohol-related overdoses in the Richmond area are up nearly 65% in the first half of 2020. Statewide, those calls have risen more than 40%.
Demetrios Viglis died of an intentional overdose in April. His mother, Mary-Ellen, and John Shinholser, president and founder of the McShin Foundation where Viglis was a client, said the pandemic contributed to Viglis’ death. They say the isolation to prevent spreading the coronavirus and the lack of in-person meetings played a role.
“You can mentally relapse without using. And that’s what’s happening to most of [the people in recovery], because the opposite of addiction is connection. And when you don’t have the connection, it feeds the disease,” said Mary-Ellen Viglis, who is also the chairwoman for the memorial garden, which includes a bench dedicated to her son.
The increase in emergency overdose calls is an unsettling reminder that even before the pandemic, the country was struggling to counteract an addiction epidemic that has led to more than 13,000 overdose deaths in Virginia since 2007. Virginia was on pace after the first three months of the year to surpass the number of deaths in 2019, according to the latest figures from the Virginia Department of Health.
Michael McDermott, a longtime recovery advocate in the Richmond area who shared the state health agency data with the Richmond Times-Dispatch, said local advocates like him have seen a marked change over the past few months. He said he wanted to see the data to confirm whether what they had noticed was true.
With the attention on the social unrest over police brutality, along with the pandemic and recent natural disasters, he worries that another deadly force is being neglected.
“Despite everyone’s acknowledgment of the problem over time, we’re not effective,” he said. ”We’re not moving in the right direction.”
The rising case numbers show people are continuing to struggle years into a statewide epidemic that has caused more deaths than gun violence and car crashes annually since 2013.
Local recovery organizations and service providers are attempting to do what they can to stem the tide.
But the reality of the pandemic and social distancing over the past five months has made it even more challenging for people with substance use disorders.
People are being laid off during a recession. Government offices are closed, making it hard for people returning from jail or entering recovery after years of neglect to obtain a new driver’s license or Social Security card. And vital group counseling sessions and peer meetings have been forced to shrink, move online or meet in secret because of pandemic-related restrictions on gatherings.
Cara Heathe, who has been living in a Richmond-area sober home for nearly a month after four years in jail, said things are different trying to connect with new people online.
“I can’t put into words what it means to lose that human connection,” she said. “In the real world, it’s easier to notice when something is wrong with someone or if they’re not speaking. People pick up on that. You can’t do that as easily over a Zoom call. It’s completely different.”
Courtney Nunnally, founder of Addiction Uncuffed, an organization that works with law enforcement and first responders to help encourage people on the street to seek help, said she has noticed a significant uptick in overdose cases as reports of layoffs, unemployment and the economic fallout of the pandemic takes its toll.
She said the closing of government offices has also led to less-consistent oversight by pretrial and probation officers.
“Accountability needs to come from somewhere,” she said. “It’s important.”
David Johnston, a captain with Hanover County Fire-EMS, said he also has noticed an uptick in overdose calls in his county, as well as suicides.
“People are stressed, they’re feeling depressed. Their lives have been flipped upside down,” he said. “These addictions have no bounds as to who they can affect.”
According to the call records from the VDH that McDermott shared with The Times-Dispatch, the number of emergency overdose calls statewide in the first six months of 2020 increased by 13% over the same period in 2019.
But that number is driven down by a decrease in alcohol-related calls. The number of non-alcohol-related emergency overdose calls is up 42%, from 4,605 cases to 6,543.
The Richmond area, meanwhile, is trending even higher, with non-alcohol-related drug overdose cases having increased by almost 65%, from 735 to 1,209.
VDH attributed 1,626 deaths to drug overdoses in 2019 — a 9% increase from 2018. Virginia is on pace for more than 1,700 this year, based on the figures from the first three months of 2020, largely before any measurable impact from the pandemic.
“We were already going to have an increase in deaths, but the [COVID-19] pandemic has turned the heat up all the way around,” Shinholser said.
Feelings of depression, anxiety and dread, even at the beginning of the pandemic, were heightened for those in recovery.
“People are very isolated, there’s high levels of anxiety, people are scared, they’ve lost their jobs,” said Christy Farmer, whose son, Henry Cullen Hazelwood, died of an overdose in May 2019 and is memorialized at the McShin memorial garden. “It seems to be even more of an epidemic now. Addiction recovery is hard, and the pandemic has made it more difficult.”
Victor McKenzie, executive director of the Substance Abuse and Addiction Recovery Alliance, said depression and addiction are “co-occurring disorders” for many people.
And so the human connection that for so many typically staves off symptoms of depression and addiction is something that people are still trying to access. SAARA operates and helps coordinate group meetings and connect clients to myriad support services that address mental health, unemployment and food insecurity.
SAARA has seen participation among its groups triple in recent months The organization used to serve 300 to 400 people each month. There were more than 1,200 contacts in June.
“It’s hard to think about your recovery when you’re trying to answer those 3 a.m. questions of ‘Where’s my next meal going to come from? Where am I going to sleep tonight?’ ” McKenzie said.
Charlotte Watts, the behavioral health director at Daily Planet Health Services, a community health center that aims to serve the poor and homeless in Richmond, said the center has shifted most of its services to a telehealth format for offerings such as its medication-assisted treatment program, which includes a requirement for patients to attend group meetings.
That required some extra coordination, as staff needed to provide space in its buildings so that homeless patients could connect virtually with health care providers and therapists working off-site.
“It was a true learning curve for us,” she said.
Recovery advocates and health care providers were already facing challenges to help those struggling with addiction. The pandemic creates another deadly barrier.
“Focusing on your recovery takes every ounce of you,” McKenzie said. “So anything added, it just makes it that much harder.”