The long term effects of the pandemic on Florida’s opioid crisis

Social distancing during COVID-19 pandemic increased feelings of isolation, which contributed in part to the rise of opioid use, behavioral health experts say. In 2020, non-fatal opioid overdoses increased by 40 percent compared to 2019, according to the Florida Dept. of Health

Gov. DeSantis suspended Florida’s COVID-19 restrictions last month, but experts say treatment centers need to prepare for the long term effects of COVID-19 on opioid abuse and behavioral health.

 

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Melanie Brown-Woofter, president and CEO of the Florida Behavioral Health Association, says that although there was initially no change in drug abuse across the state at the start of the pandemic, treatment centers later saw an increase in fatal and non-fatal overdoses. Certain areas, including Jacksonville, Tampa, Miami, Orlando, and Ft. Lauderdale showed increased use of opioids, heroin, and methamphetamine. Brown-Woofter says the state needs to prepare for long-term impacts based on previous crises.

“We’ve seen it with the Great Depression, we’ve seen it with World War I and World War II, we’ve seen it with the flu pandemics, that these have a lasting impact. So, there may be triggers even decades down the road to cause the crisis to happen again, and to trigger an increase in symptoms that folks are having.”

Addiction is tied to behavioral health, which has also been affected by the pandemic. Suicide deaths increased in 22 Florida counties from 2019 to 2020, Brown-Woofter said, adding that those numbers increase even more the year after a major crisis. Although treatment centers use medication such as Naltrexone and Methadone to reduce opioid cravings, providing patients with support systems is also key to their recovery. 

Florida, particularly in Daytona and Miami, has seen more installations of recovery-centered organizations (RCOs), which bring judges, law enforcement, the health care sector, and individual volunteers together to provide resources for recovering users in a community setting. 

“[RCOs] create a community that values recovery and works to keep people there and reduces the stigma [of drug use].”

Looking ahead, Brown-Woofter urges state legislators to push for more value-based models of care, and increase access to treatment. 

“We’re starting to understand the impact, financially, on health care with mental health and substance use disorders. In many of our chronic conditions…there’s an underlying mental health component, and that is driving cost. So we’re looking at ways to manage the cost as well as to improve the [health] outcome.”

Possible solutions to improve the state’s opioid addiction response include reducing requirements for outpatient treatment services to avoid two to four week wait times, including reimbursement models for managed care, and continuing to support telehealth services post-pandemic.