Overdose deaths were already on the rise when the COVID-19 pandemic forced a near-total shutdown of public life in the United States. In the months immediately following March 2020, when millions of Americans’ lives collapsed into home- and Zoom-sized boxes, the peaks got higher. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention publicly expressed concern; the number of overdoses without deaths spiked, too.
And the leaders of the Hamilton County Addiction Response Coalition — formerly the Hamilton County Heroin Coalition — got worried enough to begin calling weekly meetings.
Part of the goal was decreasing deaths, period. Most of it was preventing a spike.
“I think our hope was, can we mitigate and lessen some of the damage?" Newtown police Chief Tom Synan, who has served on the coalition for years, said Friday morning.
The answer to Synan’s question is yes, probably. Overdose deaths dropped slightly in Hamilton County during the pandemic: According to preliminary data collected by the coalition, the county recorded 487 such deaths in 2019 and 432 in 2020.
Dr. Jennifer Mooney of Hamilton County Health, who leads the coalition’s harm reduction efforts, credited the group’s embrace of new technology with helping to drive down the number of overdose deaths during COVID-19.
The coalition helped set up virtual meetings for recovering drug users, texted clients to stay engaged with their journey toward sobriety, and promoted peer support and mentorship. Former drug users who are willing to counsel people still recovering became a more valuable resource than ever, she said.
“(We were) incredibly innovative during a period of total fear,” she added Friday. “We’re human, too.”
But none of that is a reason to celebrate, said coalition executive chair Denise Driehaus, who also serves as a Hamilton County Commissioner. A reason to breathe a sigh of mild relief, maybe.
"To have a trend that did not go up during the pandemic as it did in so many communities, is an achievement,” she said. “It's a sobering achievement because we still lost over 400 people in Hamilton County."