LEXINGTON, Ky. – Substance and alcohol use in Fayette County is surging as the COVID-19 pandemic creates challenges to healthcare systems and public health policies with regard to prevention strategies.
Requiring novel treatment and preventative measures to adapt, individuals with substance and alcohol use disorders are not only an at-risk population for contracting the coronavirus but also are more susceptible to relapse or overdose because of the sudden social and economic changes caused by the pandemic, in addition to the traditional difficulties of treatment access and adherence.
Following global and national trends, overall substance and alcohol use, overdoses and overdose deaths have increased significantly in Fayette County since the pandemic began. Addiction specialists attribute the trend upward to the isolation created by lockdowns implemented because of the pandemic, fear, unemployment, social distancing requirements and other factors.
Several indicators are used to determine if there is an increase in drug use, and one is the number of people using the needle exchange program, which was created to prevent the spread of hepatitis C and HIV among drug users. John Moses, team leader of harm reduction services at the Lexington-Fayette County Health Department and supervisor of its nearly five-year-old needle exchange program, said he has noticed a steady increase in participants in the four months since the pandemic began.
“The needle exchange is an anonymous program, so we don’t know for sure if participants are coming more frequently,” Moses said. “But we’re seeing an increase of about 80 people each month coming through the exchange for the first time.”
Amy Baker, substance use intervention program coordinator for the city of Lexington’s Substance Use Disorder Intervention Program, which is a resource for individuals in search of information about substance use, addiction and treatment services, said an average of 230 people used the needle exchange program each week before the pandemic and that number exploded to nearly 500 during the third week of July.
“Addiction is just a monster,” she said. “I was crushed when those numbers came out.”
Drug-users are part of a population that is already marginalized and experiences a lot of isolation, and COVID-19 has increased that isolation, Moses said. Contributing also to the increase in the number of participants using the needle exchange program is pandemic-related job loss.
“We think maybe people who were only normally using drugs on the weekend and working during the week are now doing drugs full time,” Moses said. “And what happens when there’s a pandemic or something like this is an interruption in the drug supply coming from Mexico, and that has led to more fentanyl coming in. We have seen a dramatic increase in overdose deaths because of fentanyl.”