Opinion: COVID-19 pandemic despair fuels opioid epidemic
West Virginia — Craig Hettlinger explains that he started drinking when he was about 16 years old. He escalated to stronger drugs three years later when he played Division I soccer at Marshall University. He started every game for a team that was then ranked in the top 20 in the country.
"My freshman year, we had just tied the No. 16 team in the country. And what do you do after you tie No. 16 in the country? You celebrate because you played a really good game. And so, that evening, we went to a party and had a lot of alcohol, and me, personally, had a good bit of cocaine," he explained. "I passed out that evening at 19, and when I woke up, I was 32 years old in a homeless shelter in Richmond, Virginia, wondering how the hell I got there. I had literally lost 13 years of my life."
Today, he is clean and sober and standing in front of Huntington Addiction Wellness Center, a treatment facility he helped found and was working to open to serve the addiction community.
When COVID-19 broke out before his official open date, the center temporarily served the homeless in his area in response.
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"I remember watching Washington state and New York state and watching the numbers just pile up, and I thought to myself, 'I've got this 30-bed facility, and we haven't got our grant money to open yet,'" he said. "If this happens in our area, why won't the hospitals use us?" An offer to Huntington's mayor led to an eventual six-week partnership with the City Mission to house 31 of Huntington's homeless.
"We transitioned to recovery on May 19," he said. "And out of the 31 homeless that we housed, 28 of them stayed. Maybe they were coming in initially just for shelter, but by the time we got our hands on them and got to spend time with them, almost 100% of them stayed to try to push them to a better life, which is really, really cool."
Long before the pandemic came along, the nation, especially Appalachia, was in the throes of a deadly epidemic: opioid and meth addiction. It was a crisis that tore apart families, devastated communities and destroyed lives. As the pandemic continues, so does the opioid epidemic, with the pandemic's widespread effects causing opioid addiction to escalate at alarming numbers.
The Overdose Data Mapping Application Program report published in May showed fatal overdoses rose by almost 11.4% from January to April, compared with the same period last year. In July, the American Medical Association warned about an increase of reports from across the country showing a dramatic increase in opioid-related mortality during the pandemic.
Often, the very people who need the program's crisis care facilities have lost their jobs because of the virus and cannot afford to pay for critically needed help.
Hettlinger said: "In our business, the way our structure is, it's $500 to come in for 90 days. And in all reality, that's the cheapest you'll find is $5.50 a day. ... However, when you have a financial strain, it's difficult for people to pay that money. So, it would be amazing if programs like mine and other programs across the state could get some funding to accept people for free."
Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia said he has been monitoring the collision of these deadly forces since the very beginning of the COVID-19 shutdowns. It is what led him to introduce a bipartisan bill with Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado to amend the Community Mental Health Services Block Grant to authorize a set-aside fund for crisis care services such as the one Hettlinger runs.
The Crisis Care Improvement and Suicide Prevention Act, Manchin said in an interview with the Washington Examiner, would direct states to utilize 5% of their Mental Health Block Grant for crisis care services.
The Wellbeing Trust projects approximately 75,000 people are at risk of drug or alcohol death or suicide directly due to coronavirus stress, with West Virginia topping that list.
There's one caveat in the Crisis Care Bill: The 5% set aside for services will only happen after Congress increases that mental health block grant by 5%. Manchin said what he does not want to do is take away any of that important grant money from their current operations. "The number of overdose cases, exponentially, is just out of proportion," he said. "And they're rising tremendously from the opiate, and now with the COVID-19, and suicide, more people are dependent on drugs or alcohol."
The increase in cases has created more of a workload that many of these crisis facilities can't handle. "They need extra funding for that," Manchin said. "So, the extra 5% bump will come through directly into the crisis care centers, so they will have the personnel and be able to handle the growing cases."
The two-term West Virginia governor and longtime Democrat said he and his staff have been hearing from both doctors and patients about the increase of overdoses and suicides, and monitoring the spike in numbers coming through the state's Behavioral Health Bureau. He asked them what was needed, and the additional support was requested.
It is the dual depths of despair that deeply concerns Manchin. "We need to do something immediately, or we are going to lose more Americans to drugs, alcohol, and suicide because of the added burden of COVID-19," he says. "Without taking meaningful action as a nation, this epidemic within a pandemic will be deadly."
Salena Zito is a CNN political analyst, and a staff reporter and columnist for the Washington Examiner. She reaches the Everyman and Everywoman through shoe-leather journalism, traveling from Main Street to the beltway and all places in between.
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