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Providers say drug and alcohol use up during pandemic following record year of Delaware overdoses

Delaware Public Media

Health care providers are noting an increase in drug and alcohol abuse during the COVID-19 pandemic in a state where the overdose rate has risen steadily for years. 

Many who provide outpatient services for people with substance abuse disorder in Delaware made the switch to telehealth at the start of the outbreak. Psychiatric visits, group therapy sessions and check-ins from case managers continue to happen virtually, even as the state reopens parts of its economy. 

Many praise the use of telehealth, saying it has been more far-reaching for providers and more convenient for patients. But providers also note an overall increase in substance abuse during the pandemic, resulting in more referrals for outpatient services. 

“We really are seeing an increased number of substance use disorders post-surge of COVID-19,” said Dr. Lisa Lowery Deal, Director of Pharmacy at Sun Behavioral Health in Georgetown. “That is our busiest area of the hospital.”   

Delaware is coming off another record year for overdose deaths in the state with 431 in 2019. The state's 400 deaths in 2018 earned it the second highest overdose rate in the nation with 43.8 deaths per 100,000 population, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The substance most commonly associated with the deaths is the synthetic opioid fentanyl. But Deal and others say the increased abuse during the pandemic has been with alcohol as well as opioids.

Dr. Jolomi Ikomi is Medical Director of Project Recovery at ChristianaCare. He says it’s still too early to draw conclusions from the available data around an increase in overdoses, but adds the increase in relapse during the pandemic has been noticeable.

“More patients are struggling, and mainly as a result of things like there’s lack of social support. There is more isolation,” said Ikomi.  “Dual diagnosis of drug addiction and mental illness is a disease where we ask patients to get more support and engage more in treatment and they’re finding that difficult.”   

Beebe Healthcare’s Community Health Outreach Coordinator Reba Tappan, RN says the same.

“Anecdotally, we can say there has been an increase in overdoses coming into our emergency department, and that does include alcohol and mental health cases,” said Tappan.

Delaware has continued to combat the opioid crisis, funneling millions in federal grants towards distributing naloxone, hiring peer mentors and setting up prevention programs in schools. 

But, according to the latest data from the state Division of Forensic Science, Delaware’s overdose rate has risen steadily every year since 2012.

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