‘Vigilance and protective measures are essential to save lives’ from overdoses in pandemic, state health secretary writes

Eric Friedlander
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By Eric Friedlander
Secretary, Kentucky Cabinet for Health and Family Services

“Together, we are stronger than opioids.”

It’s a uniting mantra we use as part of the Kentucky Opioid Response Effort to guide our purpose, affirm our hope and call upon our greatest asset in this commonwealth: one another.

Together, we are building a system of care to reduce harms associated with opioid use and prevent misuse, connect more people with evidence-based treatment, including medications for opioid use disorder and expand recovery programs and services.

When covid-19 hit, new norms were called for: distancing from each other, working from home or not at all; and loss of child care and at-home schooling led to some people experiencing frequent and long bouts of isolation. We were fortunate in the Commonwealth to act quickly and decisively, united as the new Team Kentucky, flattening the curve together.

While we resolved to stop the spread of a dangerous virus, the stressors and anxieties took their toll on our mental and behavioral health.

It wasn’t long before we started hearing reports nationally and locally from first responders and health departments. Emergency service calls were up. Orders for Narcan – the opioid overdose reversal drug – increased.

Treatment providers voiced concern, wanting to safely keep people in treatment. Individuals in remission and recovery started to lose vital in-person connection and support, despite recovery groups’ creativity to provide virtual meeting spaces and other recovery initiatives. Overdoses in April were the highest reported since 2017 when the opioid crisis was at its peak. These reports coalesced to confirm what service providers have been concerned about since the pandemic began.

Vigilance and protective measures are essential to save lives right now and each of us can take action. Similar to CPR training, we urge Kentuckians to be trained and to carry Narcan. The website odcp.ky.gov/Stop-Overdoses/ can help connect individuals with pharmacies and harm-reduction programs ready to supply the live-saving medication.

We also encourage everyone to become familiar with the state’s online provider locator, findhelpnowky.org, to help those in need to find treatment. Identify mutual-aid groups for family and friends who are supporting those struggling with substance use.

At the state level, we continue to advance telemedicine, and have adopted policy changes to support its use.

We suspended the requirement for prior authorizations for behavioral and substance-use services in Medicaid. We’re also committed to ensuring access to health coverage so payment will not be a barrier.

Just 12 months ago, we were encouraged by a 15 percent reduction in overdose deaths. We knew our work was far from over, but this was an indicator of progress. More people were getting access to prevention, harm-reduction services, and more treatment providers were prescribing medications for opioid use disorder and providing evidence-based practices. The stigma around substance use was beginning to change.

This point in time has created new challenges to maintaining progress. It also has reminded us our recovery as a commonwealth is a work in progress, just as an individual’s recovery, because addiction is a chronic, complex disease. Let’s use these challenges as opportunities for change and advocacy.

We have long been aware of the resilience of individuals and families affected by substance-use disorder. We have watched so many adapt to these uncertain times and access services differently, ask for assistance with accessing technology and other resources, and go to any length to participate in their treatment and recovery, many of them doing so while caring for children and working or navigating loss of employment and other financial challenges.

We owe it to our fellow Kentuckians to not give up, not be discouraged, and not stop believing change and recovery are possible. Let’s acknowledge the challenges we are facing and commit to overcoming them – together. Because that is how we are stronger than opioids.

Eric Friedlander can be reached at 502-564-7042.