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September 09, 2020

Fighting addiction amid a pandemic

Credit: Herald-Mail Media, Mike Lewis

The COVID-19 pandemic has put up more hurdles for those trying to beat addictions, clients and officials at a recovery center said Tuesday.

The scene was at the Awakenings Recovery Center in downtown Hagerstown. U.S. Rep. David Trone, a Democrat who represents Maryland’s 6th Congressional District, met with four clients and two officials for about an hour at the center on Tuesday.

Trone is seeking reelection. He and two challengers, Republican Neil Parrott and Green Party candidate George Gluck, all cited the opioid epidemic as a major issue.

“COVID hurt a lot of addicts,” one of the clients at Awakenings told Trone.

He said the isolation meant to stem the spread of the disease has left many alone to face their addictions. And high-tech replacements, such as video chats and meetings, can’t replace face-to-face support groups.

“Not everyone has a cellphone, especially addicts,” the client added. “I have my laptop still. I got it out of the pawn shop many times.”

Another client, who had a job in retail, said she has not worked since stores were closed in March. That led to a lot of down time and some isolation.

“It really messed with me,” she said.

But she said she checked herself into treatment.

“My family and my life are way more important than alcoholism,” she said.

‘Trying to operate within COVID’
Ariana Cook, the clinical director at Awakenings, said many with substance abuse issues face similar challenges.

“They miss that connection,” she said, and those who lack connections are more prone to relapse.

COVID-19 “creates a lot of barriers for us,” she said.

She referred to Awakenings, a residential treatment center that has some control over its environment, as a “bubble.” Those who complete treatment have to clear more pandemic-related hurdles in after-care settings.

Robert Zellner, director of client services at Awakenings, said governments put limits on the capacity of after-care homes because of the pandemic. Limits also were placed on meetings and face-to-face opportunities.

Having fewer people in the after-care facilities also translated into having less money to do the work, he said.

“It’s this whole ordeal of trying to operate within COVID,” he said.

What the candidates say
The stop at Awakenings was one of three Trone made Tuesday. He also visited Ideal Option in Frederick and Fort Recovery Inc. in Cumberland.

At Awakenings, he mentioned a few initiatives in Congress.

For example, he and Rep. Dan Meuser, R-Pa., are advocating for the Family Support Services for Addiction Act. The measure would set up a grant program for nonprofit organizations that support families of individuals struggling with substance use disorders.

Trone said such a program might have helped his family. He referred to his nephew, who died of a fentanyl-related overdose in 2016.

“I had a lot of resources,” Trone said, “but at the end of the day, that was new to me. … These families are thrust into this.”

Addressing substance-use disorders also means changing the criminal justice system, in which addictions are often treated as crimes, and improving mental health services, he said.

In a phone interview Tuesday, Parrott, a Republican who now represents Washington County as a state delegate, agreed that opioid abuse remains a major issue. He said he was glad that organizations in the community are able to help people who are struggling with addictions.

If elected to Congress, he said, he would support measures to stop the flow of opioids into the country.

“We don’t grow opioids” in the United States, he said.

Gluck, the Green Party candidate, said people should have easy and rapid access to naloxone, a medication designed to reverse opioid overdoses. He compared it to the presence of easy-to-use AED heart defibrillators that have been placed in businesses and public buildings for use in emergencies.

But longer term, he said, people need access to good-paying jobs and, failing that, a societal safety net. He said medical professionals and patients need other remedies for pain.

“Ultimately we’ve got to dig out of the hole by finding ways for people not to need them at all,” he said.

Maryland’s 6th Congressional District includes all or part of Montgomery, Frederick, Washington, Allegany and Garrett counties.