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Addiction and COVID-19, "twindemic" crises creates challenges for local officials

Addiction and COVID-19, "twindemic" crises creates challenges for local officials

FILE - Asheville, North Carolina. Studies show that in some months of 2020, overdose rates were 30% higher than the same month the previous year. Local officials are working to battle both the COVID-19 pandemic and the opioid pandemic, a twindemic battle. (Photo credit: WLOS Staff)

Some call it the "twindemic" -- two ongoing crises at once.

"Yeah, it’s been a really challenging time," said Jennifer Nicolaisen, executive director of Seek Healing.

We're talking COVID-19 and opioids.

"We really saw the pandemic measurably impacted overdose rates in counties across the country, "she said. "And, that was no different here in Buncombe County."

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Seek Healing is a social health organization located in Asheville. News 13 originally highlighted the group back in 2019.

"We provide experiences of meaningful human connection, community and do communication skills training," Nicolaisen said. She said this past year has been hard on everyone. "It’s been very, very difficult -- especially for folks in early recovery and people who are using drugs," she added.

Nationally, more than 81,000 Americans died from drug overdoses between May 2019 and May 2020. That's according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The CDC also noted this was the highest number of overdose deaths ever recorded in a one-year period.

But, it's a stat Dr. Shuchin Shukla says didn't hold true here. "The worst in Buncombe was before 2018," he said. "And the worst for the state was before 2018. Like 2017."

Shukla works at the Mountain Area Health Education Center, or MAHEC. He serves as the opioid crisis educator. "Addiction is a medical disease -- particularly opioid addiction," Dr. Shukla said.

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He said although Buncombe County didn't hit record numbers in the past year, people here still struggled during the pandemic. "I think the main impact has been economic," said Dr. Shukla. "There’s been more psycho-social stresses on people related to job loss, related to school disruption and child care issues."

And while it will take some time for all the data from 2020 to be released, it's fair to say the opioid crisis is still ongoing in this community. "The reality is that when our social contact is limited, we tend to get sicker, and that sickness shows up as addictive and compulsive behaviors," added Nicolaisen.

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