Recovery advocates and treatment center leaders in South Florida say that the side effects of COVID-19 have driven more people into drug use and could lead to more overdose deaths than in previous years.
Recovery advocates and treatment center leaders in South Florida say that the side effects of COVID-19 have driven more people into drug use and could lead to more overdose deaths than in previous years. ( / Sun Sentinel)

More people who are out of work and isolated at home are dying of drug overdoses in South Florida, becoming overlooked victims of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Florida reported 5,621 overdose deaths, a 14% increase from January 2019 to January 2020, according to figures from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And in parts of South Florida, early numbers suggest 2020 could be even worse.

In Palm Beach County, overdose deaths are already 49% higher from January to August of this year than they were for the same period last year, according to records. At the current rate, the county could see nearly 200 more deaths in 2020 than there were in 2019.

Palm Beach Fire Rescue said they have already administered Narcan, an antidote that reverses the effect of an opioid overdose, as many times as they have in all of 2019. They have received nearly 300 more calls for overdoses than they did by the same time last year.

In Miami-Dade County, a supervisor for IDEA Exchange, the first needle-exchange program in the state, said they have seen a dramatic increase in requests for Narcan, as well as an increase in self-reported overdoses by clients.

The county medical examiner said documented overdose deaths are so far slightly lower this year than than they were last year, but Miami Dade Fire Rescue has seen a 3% rise in overdose-related calls compared to the same time last year.

The full picture of what is happening has yet to materialize due to the lack of available data. But many advocates for addicts as well as leaders at treatment centers agree that drug use and overdoses have been on a sharp rise throughout the pandemic. They also think the worst is yet to come.

“I have a feeling that we haven’t even begun to see the backlash yet,” said Staci Katz, who runs a local nonprofit in Boynton Beach to help people struggling with addiction.

‘It just made things harder’

Katz started her nonprofit three years ago with a friend whose son had recently died of an overdose. Katz’s own son has struggled with addiction for over 10 years.

He said he was sober before the pandemic started but has recently relapsed into drug use after struggling to find work and housing as a result of coronavirus restrictions and a collapsing economy.

“It just made things harder,” said Dillon Katz, 28.

After being kicked out of a sober home in Port St. Lucie, he lost his job as a tattoo artist because the shop in Palm Beach County had to close down, he said.

He found himself back home with his mother in Boynton Beach, where he began to use again. He said that every time he attempted to right himself, little things like getting his license renewed or visiting his bank became difficult because of the coronavirus and restrictions. Finding a job also was impossible.

The only industry that didn’t seem to be experiencing issues, he said, was the drug trade. “It’s still full-force going,” he said.

In August, the CDC released the results of a nationwide survey that found that 13% of participants said they started or increased substance use to cope with pandemic-related stress or emotions.

Elinore McCance-Katz, assistant secretary for the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, believes the rise in substance use directly coincides with the isolation that comes with long-term quarantining, the lack of physical contact with others in their recovery communities and the uncertainty for many who have lost their jobs due to the contracting economy.

“Those things all have mental health effects and they all contribute to substance abuse,” she told the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

Dr. John Dyben, chief medical officer at The Hanley Center at Origins, a treatment center in West Palm Beach, said that although many people are turning to the usual suspects of substances — such as alcohol and prescription drugs — others are also turning to the streets to dabble in riskier, and often deadlier drugs, such as fentanyl and heroin in the absence of other choices.

“If you can normally get Oxycontin from your buddy who is a pharmacist, but now you can’t, then people are going to turn to whatever they can get,” he said.

Treatment centers

Like many other local care providers that spoke to the South Florida Sun Sentinel, Dyben said his center expected a sharp decrease in patients once the pandemic started. But instead he saw the complete opposite.

“Lots of people are looking for treatment,” he said, adding that they include people who may have been functional in their drug and substance use but have now been pushed over the edge during the pandemic.

According to a recent survey by the National Council for Behavioral Health, 52% of treatment centers have seen an increase demand for services during the pandemic. However, 65% have also had to cancel, reschedule or turn away patients due to social-distancing requirements, a lack of protective equipment to guard against the coronavirus and sharp decreases in revenue.

Ingrid VanAlstyne, director of business development at Futures Recovery Healthcare in Jupiter, said the demand at her 105-bed facility held steady through the worse days of the pandemic.

But like many treatment centers, they had to make staff cuts and adjustments such as housing patients in their own rooms, which limited how many people they could accept.

She said other facilities in the area have had to shut their doors altogether.

Many centers said they have turned to Zoom to replace in-person gatherings and recovery meetings. While the technology has allowed them to reach more people, particularly those in rural areas, every treatment center said the technology cannot replace the benefits of meeting in person for those struggling with addiction.

“Zoom meetings have served their purpose,” said Steve English, the assistant director of the Cross Roads Club in Delray Beach. “But I think some people still need the physical accountability of seeing someone or even taking the initiative to drive some place.”

The Cross Roads Club supplies space for 12-step meetings and other recovery-based programs. Before the pandemic started, English said about 800 people a day came through their doors. Now, they have about 300 a day due to social distancing restrictions.

Katz said that for many of the addicts that she helps in Boynton Beach, meetings are often matters of “life and death” because isolation is an inherent problem. “That is why people push them to go to meetings and be social so that they get out of that mode,” she said. “But now they are back in the house again.”

COVID has the ‘spotlight’

South Florida is known for historically high overdose deaths, addiction and corruption on the part of care centers and sober homes.

Which is why many recovery advocates said they find it hard to understand why more attention isn’t being paid to a long-standing problem that has only continued to worsen despite better accountability on the part of treatment providers.

Joshua Horton, a Palm Beach County lawyer, has made his career representing people struggling with addiction and their families. He said although the state and the region has done a better job of controlling prescription opioid use, the use of street drugs such as fentanyl is “through the roof” and only being exacerbated due to the pandemic. But he said he feels like the issue has taken a backseat.

Nikki Soda, a membership development officer for the National Association of Addiction Treatment Providers, said she doesn’t believe that issues surrounding increased drug use has been completely overlooked, but she did say that, “COVID certainly has the spotlight.”

Soda, who is based in Jupiter and works with more than 89 treatment providers in the state, said she has been dismayed by the lack of data around current substance use and overdose deaths. “We’re seeing COVID numbers updated regularly.”

On a national, state, and local level, she said, much of the data available is from 2018, when the nation experienced its first decline in drug deaths in 30 years and people in South Florida started to believe the region had turned a corner.

She said she is confident that when the data from 2019 and 2020 becomes widely available it will likely come as a shock to many who haven’t been paying attention to the growing problems hiding behind the pandemic that have been going on all along.

Horton agreed. “It’s going to be nasty,” he said.