Overdose deaths in McHenry County decreased in 2021 compared with 2020 when the COVID-19 pandemic took a toll on those struggling with drug addiction, experts said during the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition’s annual State of Addiction conference Tuesday.
The pandemic caused isolation, stress, and depression that led to an increase in drug use and overdose deaths, said Chloe Cavida, an epidemiologist with the McHenry County Department of Health. It’s a correlation that needs to be studied more, she said.
There were 51 deaths in 2020 during the pandemic, compared with 42 in 2021, said Laurie Crain, drug free program coordinator at the McHenry County Substance Abuse Coalition in Woodstock. The highest rate was in 2017 with 70, she said. In 2019, 37 people died, she said.
Last year’s death rate showed a return to pre-pandemic rates, experts said. The pandemic provided lessons for the coalition’s membership, which includes the McHenry County health department, providers, and organizations like Live4Lali. One lesson was the pro and cons of telehealth service.
Telehealth had been available but not widely used or accessible before the pandemic, said Lindsay Keisman of Pivotal Counseling Center in Woodstock. Many insurance providers weren’t allowing telehealth services until the pandemic hit, she said. Now, it’s something psychologists, counselors, and psychiatrists have integrated into their practices, she said.
“It’s a great tool and has helped us reach more people,” Keisman said. It’s especially true for people living in rural areas where there aren’t many providers available, she said. Telehealth reduces the time commitment for patients, eliminates barriers, and has helped change the stigma associated with behavioral health, she said.
But “it doesn’t work for every population,” Crain said. Those with chronic conditions and dual diagnosis, meaning they have mental health issues and substance abuse disorder, need to continue with face-to-face services, she said.
“I think we’ll see a hybrid for a long time,” she said.
While it’s good news that overdose deaths decreased in 2021, it’s an ongoing issue. This year, there was a rash of deaths in January that led the coalition to issue an alert and remind people where to get help.
A strategy that coalition members have adopted is finding ways to reduce the harm drugs cause. Harm reduction strategies include teaching people how to use naloxone, providing fentanyl test strips, providing transportation to counseling appointments or treatment centers, and providing a syringe and needle exchange program.
“We will never have a drug-free society. That’s like a big kick in the stomach for some of us, but it’s the truth,” said Stefanie Gattone, McHenry program manager with Live4Lali.
Enforcement and prevention have limitations, Gattone said.
”People will continue to use drugs, get sick and die, but they don’t have to,” she said. “We can help meet them where they are and try to reduce harm any way we can.”
Those efforts expanded during the pandemic and continue, Crain said. Coalition members reached out to people explaining the help available and what harm reduction options the county offers, she said, pointing as an example to fentanyl test strips.
“Anyone using any sort of drug or not buying it at a pharmacy should test their drugs,” Crain said.
Harm reduction strategies don’t enable drug use, Gattone said.
“If someone doesn’t want to stop, they won’t stop until they are ready. Why not keep them alive until they are ready? The very bottom line is without a heartbeat recovery is impossible. Keeping someone alive until they want to recover is the thing we strive by,” she said.