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'A Disease of Isolation' | The Pandemic's Toll on Addiction Recovery Efforts

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — In Knox County, fighting addiction has been a problem for years. Since 2016,  more than one thousand people have died from suspected drug overdoses.

It's a disease of isolation — one that leaders across East Tennessee have worked diligently to fight. For the first time since 2016, the number of suspected overdose deaths declined last year. 

Then came COVID-19.

"I suspected when we had the stay-at-home orders that there probably would be an increase because we know from addiction, and what addiction does to people, that it is a disease of isolation," said Karen Pershing, executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition. 

Recovery meetings shifted online, but Pershing said it took many groups several weeks to make that change. Plus, not everyone has the technology to access them.

"When people are isolated, they tend to get more depressed, more anxiety," Pershing told 10News. "Folks can easily relapse especially when they're alone and they don't have that accountability network that you're used to having."

From March 1 through June 12, the Knox County District Attorney General's Office has reported 104 suspected drug overdose deaths in 2020.

That's up from 90 in 2017, 84 in 2018 and 94 in 2019 — but those numbers include overdoses from the beginning of March through the end of June.

This June isn't even halfway over.

More people have died from a suspected overdose from March 1 to June 12, 2020 than have from March 1 to June 30 the past few years.

"As soon as we can safely engage and start having face to face interactions, we need to be doing that," Pershing said. "That connection instead of just virtual, I think is very important."

Right now, Metro Drug Coalition is offering all-recovery meetings and mindfulness meditation classes every Friday on Zoom.

Eventually, they plan to open The Gateway, a community recovery center designed to help those who've struggled with addiction.

"If they need job training, programs, housing, all of those things are critically important," Pershing said. "And so, having a place that brings all of those assets together in the community is critically important."

The Gateway renovations were scheduled to start April 1, but have been pushed back due to the pandemic. The building served more than 60 homeless people over the past few months who needed a place to self-quarantine.

Now, MDC is hoping the community will come together to fight the overdose epidemic — just like Knox County did with the coronavirus.

"This community did an amazing job helping the most vulnerable people prevent the spread of COVID," Pershing said. "If we can take that same concern and consideration that we had for others and apply it to the epidemic of substance use in this community, there's nothing we can't do."

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