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Norwich area providers cope with collision of opioid crisis and pandemic

Norwich — During the coronavirus pandemic, area addiction services providers have been making extra efforts to keep in touch with and get services to people in the recovery community.

A small group of providers told U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, during a Zoom roundtable Friday morning how they're coping with what Courtney characterized as the collision of the opioid crisis and the coronavirus pandemic.

The pandemic has only served to deepen the addiction crisis. The number of overdose deaths statewide had grown to 830 as of the end of September, according to the state Department of Public Health. The state Office of the Chief Medical Examiner is projecting 1,362 overdoses for the year, compared to 1,200 in 2019. Alcohol abuse also remains a serious problem in the area, according to the providers.

Courtney said the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy notified his office Friday that the Norwich Prevention Council would receive a second $125,000 allocation for substance abuse prevention through the Drug-Free Communities Support Program.

Norwich's Heroin Task Force has worked with first responders to map overdoses so that recovery coaches can find the overdose patients and offer services, said Rayallen Bergman, Drug Free Communities coordinator for Norwich Youth & Family Services.

The recovery coaches have been bringing folding chairs to hold socially distanced outdoor sessions, said Mike Doyle, unit director for Reliance Health's Penobscot Place Recovery Coach Program. As cold weather sets in, the providers are considering using portable heaters during outside meetings or finding ways to meet safely, in small numbers, indoors.

Griswold PRIDE has followed Norwich's lead and started its own mapping initiative, using the data collected to flood businesses in Jewett City, where overdoses are concentrated, with the overdose-reversal drug Narcan, said Miranda Mahoney, project coordinator for PRIDE.

Those who manage their addiction with methadone have been allowed to take home weekly doses, so they don't have to go to a clinic daily. Doyle said methadone continues to be highly regulated, and he has not heard of many cases where people are "diverting" their medication to others.

Computer tablets and cellphones have been distributed, so people can access online counseling services and meetings. Training on the use of Narcan has gone virtual.

"Self-isolation brings triggers and can lead to setbacks in recovery, and we're seeing that all over the place," said Kelly Barrett of Matt's Mission, a small nonprofit in Griswold dedicated to reducing the stigma of addiction and helping those in recovery. "Connection and support are key, and with (COVID-19), a lot of that has been reduced or is gone altogether."

The volunteer group has partnered with PRIDE to distribute cellphones and provide backpacks with pandemic-specific items, such as masks, hand sanitizers and toilet paper, to people coming out of treatment programs or prisons.

Matt's Mission has had to scale back its fundraising efforts and needs funding for transporting people to treatment and for phone lines to connect people with services, Barrett said.

Courtney said small nonprofit organizations, such as Matt's Mission, may be eligible for grants through the next stimulus package and urged the providers to keep in touch with his office.

According to a spokesman for his office, in addition to Norwich, the eastern Connecticut communities of Andover, Hebron and Marlborough Youth and Family Services also will receive a Drug Free Communities grant award of $125,000 to support their Coalition for a Healthy Empowered Community program.

k.florin@theday.com

Editor's Note: This version corrects Reliance Health's name.

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