25 Investigates: The battle to get sober during COVID with treatment hard to come by

BOSTON — According to state public health data, 2020 was the deadliest year on record for opioid overdoses in Massachusetts.

The data was evidence of what health advocates had long feared: the big shadow cast by the COVID-19 pandemic had a devastating effect on people battling addiction.

A lonely battle made impossible for some

“It still scares me that one day I’m going to just wake up dead and nobody’s going to care,” said Aaron. We are only using the Lowell man’s first name.

Aaron said he’s actively using. He showed 25 Investigates the scars on his arms, which he says are all from the last six months.

“At any moment it could be the last use,” he said. “Six friends of mine died in Fitchburg.”

Battling drug addiction can be an isolating journey, made even more daunting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

For many in that battle, the pandemic made the fight impossible. Isolation, unemployment and homelessness created the perfect storm for the drug epidemic to soar.

State health data from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health shows, in 2020, Massachusetts saw 2,104 overdose deaths – a record high. That’s an estimated 102 more than 2019 and slightly above the previous peak of 2,102 in 2016, according to DPH.

“We were forced out of the apartment and onto the street, pretty much had nowhere to go,” said Lowell woman Katelyn, whom we’re also only identifying by her first name.

Katelyn said she’s now in recovery, but said she struggled finding help during the pandemic.

“Just getting into the detox this time around was a little bit harder, there would be no beds,” Katelyn said.

“During the shutdown, it would take a couple of days and a lot of times you weren’t able to get people into treatment,” said Jaime Dillon, who runs Life Connection Center in Lowell.

Her center was one of the few community centers in the state to remain open last year. She said before the pandemic it would take a couple of hours to place someone in treatment.

The Massachusetts Department of Public Health told us some places had to reduce bed size to meet COVID safety protocols. Some had to temporarily close due to COVID outbreaks and deep cleaning.

We saw the effect of a contraction of resources clearly taking shape in Boston.

As 25 Investigates reported in August, people flocked to Boston’s so-called ‘Methadone Mile’ to seek help and a place to stay.

We tried to get the exact number of beds or slots in treatment programs that went away during the pandemic. DPH told us the agency, “tracks the maximum number of slots available in a program. The only bed reductions observed came from programs needing to provide for social distancing.” They did not provide an exact number.

The battle to stay open

“We will keep it open. We will be there for people. People are still going to get sober; people still need help,” said Jackie Fletcher, director of admissions of McLean Naukeag, a two-week residential treatment program in the central Massachusetts town of Petersham.

They’d typically house 20 people at a time. But the pandemic forced them to temporarily reduce to only eight beds. The team knew fewer patients, so they could follow strict safety protocols, was better than the alternative of shutting down altogether.

Though, Fletcher said, the need was great. She told anchor and investigative reporter Kerry Kavanaugh she noticed an increase in calls immediately after the shutdown hit last spring.

“It was right away, really, to tell you the truth,” Fletcher said.

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“The demand man was tremendous and continues to be tremendous, said Dr. Monika Kolodziej, the program director. “Knowing that we are working with people who suffer from both substance-use disorders and also mental health conditions, that, for some people, this is life and death.”

Back in Lowell, Jamie Dillon felt that same weight to create a space to help people in need.

“We’re not a recovery program. There’s no sobriety requirement. But they have found some kind of solace or hopefully some kind of community here,” Dillon said.

The Life Connection Center opened a 20-bed shelter in their backroom in January to meet with the rising demand for stable housing in Lowell. It’s called ‘The Sanctuary’ and many here just left treatment and have no place to go.

Katelyn and Aaron are now both living in ‘The Sanctuary.’

“It was really an issue for me to be able to get off the street and away from the people around me that are trying to trigger my use,” Katelyn said. “I feel a lot better with a lot of the resources that they have here to help us with. It just kind of keeps me going, keeps structure in my day.”

That structure has helped Aaron find a part-time job.

Spring and COVID-19 vaccines are beginning to end the isolation. They’re both welcome signs for those battling addiction and the places fighting to help them survive.

“It’s nice to be able to go get a coffee or sit down in a restaurant and have something to eat with your friends or people that are vaccinated,” Katelyn said.

The Opioid Epidemic: What’s next

State data also revealed while the shutdown is over, the crisis continues. Overdose deaths in the first three months of 2021 outpaced the first three of 2020. There remains a huge need for treatment and resources to save lives.

In response to the new data, the Baker administration highlighted in a news release a series of new and ongoing investments.

“Recent investments have focused on new intervention efforts among youth and expanded supports for people in recovery, and the Administration’s FY 2022 budget proposal includes a total of $375.3 million across state agencies to address substance misuse, a 7% increase over last year.”

A spokesperson with DPH told us the health, safety and well-being of people facing substance-use disorders continue to be an urgent priority of the Baker-Polito administration.