Drug overdoses in Tennessee spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic year of 2020.
Agencies providing addiction treatment are moving forward with recovery programs, members of the Greene County Anti-Drug Coalition were told Thursday.
More than 20 coalition members met in person for the first time in more than 16 months and were updated Thursday on several programs designed to treat or prevent addiction.
The COVID-19 pandemic kept all coalition meetings virtual last year. The last time members met at the Greene County Health Department was in February 2020.
In online coalition meetings through 2020, care providers said the pandemic made providing treatment difficult.
Figures from the Centers Disease Control and Prevention and those collected by the Greene County Health Department show why coalition members are concerned.
The CDC reported last week that drug overdose deaths in the U.S. totaled more than 93,300 in 2020, an increase of 29.4% over 2019. More than 69,700 overdose deaths involved opioids, according to preliminary data released by the CDC.
While data is still preliminary, the CDC released provisional drug overdose death counts for 2020.
Fatal drug overdoses in Tennessee during 2020 total more than 3,100, an increase of 44.1% from 2019, preliminary CDC data shows.
According to the Tennessee Department of Health’s Drug Overdose Dashboard, 2,089 Tennesseans died of drug overdoses throughout the state in 2019, and there were 16,670 non-fatal overdose emergency rooms visits.
In the Northeast Region of Tennessee, which includes Greene, Washington, Unicoi, Carter, Hawkins, Hancock, Johnson, and Sullivan counties, there were 107 fatal drug overdoses and 801 non-fatal outpatient overdose visits in 2019.
There were 18 fatal drug overdoses in Greene County in 2019, and 143 non-fatal outpatient overdose visits.
“The trend of increasing overdoses through 2019 in combination with the devastating effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have created what data suggest will be the deadliest year for overdoses,” Greene County Health Department Director Lori Moore said Thursday.
Moore noted some trends from the executive summary of the state Health Department’s annual overdose report for 2021.
- Overdose deaths involving prescription opioids decreased for the third year in a row in Tennessee, from a high of 739 deaths in 2016 to 515 in 2019.
- The rate of fentanyl overdoses increased substantially, from 11.6 per 100,000 residents in 2018 to 16.8 per 100,000 in 2019, a 44.8% increase. For the first year, fentanyl — a synthetic narcotic 50 times more powerful than morphine and sometimes sold to unsupecting buyers as heroin or other opioids — was involved in more than half of fatal drug overdoses.
- Deaths involving stimulants other than cocaine, a category that includes deaths primarily due to methamphetamine, have increased substantially over the past five years, from 112 deaths in 2015 to 651 in 2019.
Sheriff Wesley Holt told the coalition that the pandemic interrupted the flow of chemicals from China to Mexico used to make methamphetamine, driving street prices up and causing some to turn to heroin, fentanyl and other drugs.
“We’re starting to see it pick up again,” Holt said. “We’re trying to get these drugs off of the street. We can’t keep up with it. It’s not just us, it’s across the United States.”
Craig Duncan, director of the 3rd Judicial District Drug Task Force, said agents “are looking to make a dent” in the area meth trafficking market.
“With Covid starting to die down, the supply of meth will increase,” he said.
Inpatient beds and other treatment for clients is coming soon in the Ballad Health Strong Futures program.
Strong Futures takes a comprehensive approach to care and treatment for mothers with a diagnosed substance use disorder and their families.
Melissa Willett, housing supervisor and behavioral health specialist, told the coalition that the program takes a “two-generation approach” to address the needs of mothers and children.
Treatment for fathers will also be offered in the future as the program expands, Willett said.
Strong Futures emphasizes developing parenting skills, educational success, workforce development, client well-being and “financial literacy.”
The program, which serves a 10-county area, assists pregnant women or mothers 18 years of age and older who suffer from addiction or need other behavioral health services.
The former Takoma Regional Hospital, now known as Strong Futures, is being remodeled to provide housing accommodations for clients.
“We’re taking a hospital and turning it into a house,” Willett said.
Outpatient services are currently offered in the former Takoma medical clinic on East Vann Road.
Another Strong Futures goal is to reduce the number of babies born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, a condition in which an infant undergoes withdrawal from a substance to which he or she was exposed in the womb. Recent statistics show about 36 babies born per 1,000 live births in the region suffer from NAS.
Multi-discipline “treatment teams” will be assigned to one mother and family and work with them for up two two years.
The system was designed for 12 beds but there is a much greater need, Willett said.
“We’re already asking for more beds,” she said. “We’re open, but we’re just limited on beds now. We don’t have all the amenities we will have.”
The 12-bed inpatient facility will open in August. Clients can stay as long as 15 months. The goal is “saving lives,” Willett said.
“Some of these folks are nearly on the verge of death,” she said.
General Sessions and Juvenile Court Judge Kenneth Bailey Jr., probation officers, law enforcement and others in the court system have expressed a willingness to work with Strong Futures to place clients in the program rather than jail.
“It’s nice to see people in the courtroom to help (potential clients) navigate the system,” said Bailey, co-chair of the anti-drug coalition.
Communication leading to “full recovery” is the ultimate goal of Strong Futures, Willett said.
“We’re hoping to reduce that burden on the families. We’re trying to connect all that. There’s so many barriers to get (treatment) that we’re trying to overcome,” she said.
Lea Anne Spradlen, a Strong Futures “community navigator,” said many clients lack family support and other resouces.
“They need a safe place to go. They just need a direction,” Spradlen said. “We’re hoping to make a huge difference in the community.”
Bailey said the Isaiah 117 House in Greeneville has been a welcome addition for agencies that [lace children in foster homes children.
The Isaiah 117 House provides “physical and emotional support in a safe and loving home for children awaiting foster care placement,” according to the non-profit’s Facebook page.
“We had no idea it was going to be used (this much), but it’s almost every day,” Bailey said. “It’s been a blessing to the community having that house.”
Brandy Cannon, a case manager with the Tennessee Department of Children’s Services, said the pandemic has overloaded the social services system, leading to long hours of trying to assist people with problems that include addiction, financial insolvency, depression and pregnancies.
Cannon agreed there is a need for programs like Strong Futures. She said drugs are taking a toll on the community, including women who are pregnant.
“It’s not getting any better. We’re dealing with methamphetamine,” she said. “We’re dealing with heartbreak, but they need help.”
COMMUNITIES THAT CARE
Updating the coalition on the Communities That Care program was Linda Flanagan, program assistant for Greene County Extension who coordinates the Tennessee PROMPT initiative.
PROMPT stands for Preventing Rural Opioid Misuse through Partnerships and Training. The PROMPT program seeks to identify factors that put youth at risk using the “Community That Cares” model.
“Concerning” risk factors to the community during the pandemic year of 2020 into 2021 include drug use, depression and family conflict, Flanagan said.
University of Tennessee Extension, in partnership with the Greene County Anti-Drug Coalition, East Tennessee State University and the University of Washington received a two-year grant called PROMPT TN.
The grant was announced in 2020. Planning associated with it has been delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Planning stages to address concerns in Greene County is now “moving along at the right pace,” Flanagan said.
The process includes a needs assessment survey filled out by 866 Greene County Schools students to help determine the need for prevention services among youth in areas such as substance abuse, delinquency, anti-social behavior and violence.
Bailey said he has seen a rise in depression among teenagers during the pandemic.
The CTC Board will meet in August to discuss survey results for prioritization. Findings will be shared with the anti-drug coalition and community before the next phase, which involves implementing programs to address identified risk and protective factors, Flanagan said.