Northern Shenandoah Valley grapples with spike in overdoses during pandemic

Virginia

On Tuesday, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va) spoke with members of the Northern Virginia Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition over Zoom.

WINCHESTER, Va. (WDVM) — As the pandemic devastates the United States, the country is facing another health crisis: the opioid and substance abuse epidemic, which is being exacerbated by COVID-19. 

On Tuesday, Senator Tim Kaine (D-Va) spoke with members of the Northern Virginia Shenandoah Valley Substance Abuse Coalition over Zoom. Overdoses are on the rise since the start of the pandemic, and last month Kaine urged Congress to increase federal investment for state, local and tribal governments and treatment providers that are battling the country’s substance use epidemic. The Northern Shenandoah Valley says it has seen a 55 percent increase in drug use in the last year and an 88 percent increase in deaths by overdose. 

Kaine wanted to hear the coalition’s concerns to influence Congress’ next investment package, which is expected to pass in the next five weeks. Congress has invested $3 trillion in recovery packages, and Kaine wants to turn the dial up for individuals and families, and state and local governments. The senator says Republicans were not interested in aiding state and local governments when Congress was putting together its CARES Act back in March. Democrats insisted and reached a compromise. “We’ve refilled the small business bucket and refilled the hospital healthcare bucket,” Kaine said. “We got state and local government aid, including a $3.3 billion block grant to Virginia and its localities, but we had to agree that state and local governments can only use those dollars for increased expenses due to COVID, not backstopping lost revenues occasioned by this crisis.” 

People with substance abuse are especially vulnerable to relapse because of the isolation and job loss they’re facing. To make matters worse, many of them used their stimulus checks and tax refunds to purchase drugs. Hugh McGee, owner and director of Rivendell Recovery Center, says his clients aren’t allowed to have more than $50 at a time. “Man, when those stimulus checks came in? Holy moly,” said Hugh McGee. “People were sending me pictures of drugs under tables and the mother’s sending me, going ‘What do I do?’ You know, cause as soon as they get up to $1,200 – I mean, wow.” 

Kaine has suggested personalizing individual assistance in the future. “If you provide that individual assistance in a more targeted way, you can maybe reduce the chances that the dollars can be spent – either go to people who are not the most needy, or dollars could be spent in ways that could be harmful by people who are teetering on the edge of recovery.” 

Recovery meetings have moved online. The coalition says “they work, but they’re not the best.” Many people were released from jail early as two of the Shenandoah Valley’s jails faced coronavirus infections. When they were released, recovering addicts weren’t met with the usual resources. Probation and parole officers can’t drug test them as often as they normally would. They’re also being released into many unknowns and a nonexistent job market. 

“800,000 local government employees were laid off their jobs in April,” Kaine said. “It’s probably going to be more in May when the statistics come out. First responders in this country; EMT, sheriff, our local employees – a whole lot of healthcare workers are state and local government employees.” 

The Northwestern Community Services Board normally has 15 peer support specialists in hospital emergency rooms and jails to help people secure and maintain employment, but they haven’t been able to visit as of late. It hopes to move its meetings in-person when it can secure enough personal protective equipment. The coalition’s Drug Court has been holding weekly sessions over Zoom and five of its members graduated on Tuesday. It’s been disseminating resource fact sheets to the jails in the hopes of getting resources to the inmates before they’re released. 

Judge Elizabeth Kellas is concerned about the pandemic’s long term effects on children, especially if school doesn’t open in the fall. “Parents that have been clean and sober and in recovery for two or three years are back in court; oftentimes it’s grandparents taking emergency custody cause they’ve just relapsed and gone off the wagon,” she said.

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