Knox County sees increase of overdose-related deaths since start of coronavirus pandemic

National Coronavirus Coverage

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The coronavirus pandemic, which arrived in Tennessee in March, has impacted communities in numerous ways apart from the simple fact that the number of people infected continues to increase.

The collateral damage from the pandemic also includes those struggling with addiction.

Between March and May of this year, according to the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office‘s website, 100 people died of a suspected overdose-related deaths.

During the same time frame in 2019, 71 people died.

That is a 40% increase of overdose-related deaths.

Knox County DA’s Office, medical examiner data

In statistics shared by the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office and the Drug Related Death Task Force, as of this story’s publication, there have been 14 suspected overdose-related deaths in the month of July, so far.

Last year, the month of July saw 20 deaths total; however, by July 20 of 2019, there had been 11 deaths.

This year has already surpassed 2019’s overdose-related deaths, year-to-date, total: There have been 175 overdose-related deaths for 2020; while in 2019, that total was at 141.

That’s a 24% increase in suspected overdose-related deaths.

According to the Knox County District Attorney General’s Office, the data sets show the number of suspected drug overdose deaths in Knox County from information provided by the Knox County Regional Forensic Center; however, in the county’s effort to identify suspected drug overdose deaths as soon as possible, the data is initially obtained before a death is determined to be an overdose.

Once a determination is made by the medical examiner, the data is updated, causing it to fluctuate over time.

The Metro Drug Coalition of Knoxville posted about the drastic increase of deaths in its July Gateway update online.

Karen Pershing, executive director of Knoxville’s Metro Drug Coalition, said the pandemic created a lot of isolation.

While it’s not easy for many to be isolated, it’s especially difficult for those struggling with addiction.

She said many people were able to get through stay-at-home orders because they could call loved ones and find virtual ways to connect.

For people who are early in their recovery process, they haven’t had time to rebuild those connections or create new ones.

“We know the opposite of addiction is not recovery, but it’s connection, and it’s really connection to others and connection with the broader community,” Pershing said.

Sharon Hajko, a volunteer with the county’s overdose victim’s support group, said the major difference between this year and last year is being able to have those face-to-face interactions.

“You were meeting people face to face, the medication take back events, you were getting to talk to people face to face. The recovery groups were meeting face to face,” Hajko said.

Pershing said that one of the broken connections could also be a trigger to use drugs or alcohol: loss of employment when businesses were forced to close.

“When businesses shut down or had to lay people off, again, that leaves people feeling more hopeless and when you feel more hopeless, sometimes you may turn to alcohol or drugs,” Pershing said.

Pershing added that due to social distancing, addicts might be using drugs alone more often, which means no one is there to administer Nalaxone or call 911.

However, MDC was still finding ways to train loved ones how to administer Nalaxone, even if it meant meeting up in a random parking lot and wearing masks and gloves.

Support and recovery services in general also suffered, according to Pershing.

She said treatment was still available, but because of the pandemic, how people were being treated shifted, which also created a little slow down of how many people could be helped.

Metro Drug Coalition also had to take a pause in creating a community recovery center due to the pandemic.

How ‘The Gateway’ provided space for ‘The Guest House’

Earlier this year, Metro Drug Coalition was part of an initiative that opened “The Guest House” for people experiencing homelessness to stay while recovering from COVID-19.

The coalition had plans to open its recovery shelter, “The Gateway” this year, but due to the pandemic, partnered with the city to open “The Guest House” at the location originally designated for The Gateway.

In April, MDC said they were temporarily putting The Gateway plans on hold to allow for the building on West Fifth Ave. to be a shelter space for people experiencing homelessness who have been tested for COVID-19.

Hajko said their family support groups pretty much stopped as well because of the pandemic.

As a parent of an overdose victim herself, Hajko truly feels sorry for the families who recently lost loved ones, and wants them to know, as well as struggling addicts, there will always be help.

“Unfortunately you’re not alone, and there are people out there who understand and are willing to talk to you,” Hajko said.

Within the last month or so, groups started meeting again.

Hajko said the support group started meeting in person again at the beginning of July, wearing masks and gloves.

Pershing said sometimes recovery groups meet outside or virtually.

She said she knows it’s difficult to battle a pandemic and an epidemic at the same time, but now that everything is reopening again, she knows the community can step up.

“I really feel that we can do something about this when we come out of it. If we can take the caring and concern we have for spreading this virus, and we can translate that into ‘let’s not let these young people die unintentionally from drug overdoses,’ there is nothing this community can’t do,” Pershing said.

How MDC wants to continue its mission in driving down overdose data, offering resources through ‘The Gateway’

Despite these numbers, Pershing said MDC isn’t giving up hope that they can help drive down the numbers for the remainder of the year despite the COVID-19 pandemic.

As part of that mission, they’re trying to continue its renovations for “The Gateway” and thanks to a federal grant, that will help, but there’s more to do.

“There is not a more urgent time for our community to come together and build a center where connection, healing and hope can happen for individuals and families. The Gateway renovation needs to happen quickly. By partnering with MDC, you can help build bridges to lasting recovery through recovery coaching, access to support groups, art and music therapy, trainings for individuals and families, access to credit repair and employment services, as well as opportunities for connection to additional education and job training programs.
We need a physical place for all of this to come together. The building is in a perfect location, staff and volunteers are ready to serve, we need you to come alongside us to push aside the stigma of guilt and shame and open up life-changing opportunities. MDC recently received the federal Building Communities of Recovery grant to cover the operations for the next three years. We are the first agency in Tennessee to receive this funding. A solid foundation is in place, but physical space is our only limitation.
With your help, we can unlock endless possibilities of individuals and families.”
-Metro Drug Coalition

For anyone struggling with addiction, call the TN Redline at 1-800-889-9789.

For families who lost loved ones to an overdose, call Tracee Smith with the Knox County DA’s office at 865-215-3875.

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