As the COVID-19 shutdown forced substance abuse and mental health services to close brick-and-mortar offices to all but emergency traffic, worries began about the potential effects on the opioid crisis.
The signs are mixed.
Sullivan County has recorded 92 total overdoses since the year started, compared to 46 through the same period last year. Of the 2020 overdoses to date, seven were fatal and another 63 requiring the use of naloxone, said county spokesman Dan Hust.
“Year over year, we have seen an increase in overdoses, but that increase existed before COVID-19 arrived in Sullivan County. Thus, at this time we cannot speak to a firm correlation between that level of drug abuse and coronavirus-related challenges,” Hust said.
In Orange County, overdoses overall are down for the first four months of 2020 compared to last year, with 115 suspected overdoses, 22 of them fatal, and 44 requiring naloxone through the end of April. In 2019 the numbers were 152 suspected overdoses with 34 fatalities and 43 naloxone uses.
Since the end of March, the pace of suspected overdoses has kept pace with last year: from March 29-April 23, there were 27 suspected overdoses this year with seven deaths and 10 naloxone uses, compared to 26 suspected overdoses with 11 deaths and just three naloxone uses for that stretch in 2019.
Most of the county providers have gone to virtual services, by video chat or phone. Organizations still offering limited in-person visits have mostly limited them to emergencies.
While in-person services are extremely limited, said Darcie Miller, Orange County’s Mental Health Commissioner, regulation changes to expand telemedicine during the pandemic has lifted barriers to medication-assisted treatment for opioid use disorder - particularly buprenorphine, which has long required would-be treatment patients to meet face-to-face with a doctor.
“Now, they can prescribe it over the phone, which is so powerful,” Miller said.
Telemedicine has also cut down another treatment barrier, transportation issues.
Both mental health and substance abuse treatment providers have reported that patients are showing up at a higher percentage of the virtual appointments.
“Overall, I would say we’re doing well,” Miller said. “We just need to keep working.”