• November 28, 2020

Appalachia Struggles to Cope with Opioid Epidemic as Coronavirus Persists

 Appalachia Struggles to Cope with Opioid Epidemic as Coronavirus Persists

Photo courtesy of the CDC. By Debora Cartagena

Doctors and nurses are overwhelmed, and not just because of the coronavirus pandemic. Front line medical workers across the nation were scrambling to get the opioid epidemic under control when the pandemic turned the public’s attention to coronavirus, and now experts are bracing for a massive spike in opioid overdoses this year. 

Drug overdose deaths increased in 2019, claiming the lives of more than 70,000 Americans. 

Experts fear 2020 will be even worse due to social isolation, increased unemployment, and anxiety. The spike in substance abuse is being witnessed across the spectrum. 

Source: CDC

“It got so bad that I would have moments, like, I contemplated the fact that I may not wake up tomorrow because of how much I’m drinking,” Barlow Harlin, who struggles with substance use disorder, told West Virginia Public Broadcasting in an interview. “It’s kind of scary to get to that point when you’re drinking so much that you realize that you may end up killing yourself with alcohol, but yet you still don’t do anything about it.” 

In the battle to stay sober, Harlin says that interpersonal connections are essential to maintaining his sobriety. 

“Because when we isolate and addicts and push people away, a lot of times we create our own problems that we think the public doesn’t care about us,” he told WVPB. “But when you get into recovery and you get sober, whether you realize it or not, you depend on other people to support you.” 

According to the Centers for Disease Control more than 750,000 people have died from the Opioid Epidemic since 1999. The misuse of and addiction to opioids is “a serious national crisis that affects public health as well as social and economic welfare,” according to The National Institute on Drug Abuse. 

Researchers from the Emory Rollins School of Public Health found that despite several initiatives to promote access to buprenorphine, the drug used to treat opioid abuse, pharmacies in 12 counties in Kentucky denied people with prescriptions access. Similar patterns have been seen in parts of Tennessee and West Virginia, according to the Medical Press. 

Besides being used as a treatment for abuse, buprenorphine can also reduce the risk of overdose, hepatitis C virus infection and HIV infection. 

According to the Medical Press, researchers discovered that a lack of trust between physicians and pharmacists, the stigma of suffering for Opioid Use Disorder (OUD) and the monitoring systeming drug wholesalers use were the main reasons that pharmacists denied patients the drug. 

Researchers believe that these challenges can be overcome if pharmacists and drug wholesalers adopt measures such as tracking buprenorphine separately from other opioids and increasing the current cap on dispensing the medication. Researchers also suggest that state licensure boards clarify guidelines regarding prescribing and dispensing while also recommending the re-education of health care professionals about the use of buprenorphine as a therapy for OUD.

Treatment could become more readily available for patients located in North Georgia. Two of Mercer University School of Medicine professors received a million dollar grant to fund a prevention, treatment and recovery program. 

This grant will supplement work already put into action by the North Georgia Opioid Prevention and Education Network. 

“This federal grant will implement a multi-sector initiative to combat the opioid epidemic in our North Georgia region, following a plan designed for and by our community,” said Georgia House Speaker David Ralston (R-Blue Ridge). “I applaud the MUSM Center for Rural Health and Health Disparities and all of the local agencies and organizations participating in the consortium for working together on this critical public health issue.”

Anna Muckenfuss

Anna Muckenfuss

Anna Muckenfuss has reported for the Appalachian Online and is currently the Producer of The Appalachian Weekly News for AppTV. She's currently a senior journalism major at Appalachian State University in Boone, NC.

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