JEFFERSONVILLE — Numbers released from the Clark County Health Department show that during three months of 2020, drug overdose cases seen in the emergency room were at or well above the previous record — which health officials say points to the need for continued education and advances in treatment.

In March and June 2016, cases totaled 37 each month before dropping over the past several years. That is until the start of lockdown restrictions last spring due to the COVID-19 pandemic. April saw another 37 cases and the number soared to 62 in May. June dipped a little to 34 before July hit 45.

During a panel discussion Monday at the virtual kickoff for the sixth annual Clark County CARES Drug Facts Week, Clark County Health Officer Dr. Eric Yazel raised the point that the correlation to higher overdoses when there were limited addiction and mental health services due to the pandemic shows that the programs already in place had been working and called COVID-19 “a real challenge to our system.”

“Almost immediately when we started some of the shutdowns, we saw an increase in our overdoses — almost to the day,” he said during the panel discussion, which was live-streamed and is now archived. He and other health officials have linked those increases to the isolation of the quarantine and shutdowns that helped fuel addictions. People in recovery need regular connection with others, he explained. But, Yazel said that although the overdoses themselves close to doubled, deaths only rose about 10% to 15%.

“I think that is a testament to some of our programs,” Yazel said. The programs include the increased availability and education on the use of Narcan and naloxone, the opioid overdose reversal drug. The treatments have been distributed to first responders, and the health department has training and free doses for community members. It’s also now being given to people released from jail and after being seen at the ER for an overdose.

“Those are very simple things, but they’re things that weren’t happening a few years ago,” he said. Another initiative has been the Pulse Point app, which alerts someone with the app to a person nearby experiencing cardiac arrest or an overdose. Someone who carries Narcan and is trained to use it can quickly get there and possibly save a life.

Clark County CARES, a grassroots community education and resource group formed six years ago, seeks to continue the conversations and partnerships that have helped put some of those initiatives in place through working with community members, health care organizations, judges, law enforcement and social services.

That’s how Andrew Adams, who recently presided over Clark County Circuit Court No. 1, was inspired to do his part by helping people with mental health or addiction issues who passed through his court.

In 2017, then-Judge Adams worked with Floyd County Superior Court No. 3 Judge Maria Granger to expand the Veterans Court of Southern Indiana — which she had started in 2011 — to Clark County. The next year, he got in place the Clark County Addiction Treatment and Support program (CCATS), which seeks to help break the cycle of incarceration for people with lower-level nonviolent crimes that may be related to drugs or mental health issues.

To participate in CCATS, an individual first goes through an in-patient rehabilitation stay and is then monitored by the court. It’s tailored to individual needs and includes regular meetings with a case manager and in court, as well as drug screens.

Adams said the program’s success can help stop the sometimes revolving door of incarceration for some with untreated issues that contribute to their criminal activity. He also said that without intervention, a person involved with the criminal justice system has a 75% chance to re-offend.

“If we can break that cycle and get the treatment in advance of a third arrest or probation violation, we can [stop] that,” he said.

Monday’s panel also included discussion with Barb Anderson, social worker, community advocate for homelessness and poverty and one of the founding members of Clark County CARES. Participants also heard from Casey Linne, who spoke of her lifelong struggle with addiction and road to recovery.

Starting with alcohol as a teen, Linne eventually was introduced to crack and later pills and methamphetamine.

“That literally stole my soul,” she said. She also talked of the 18 months she was clean in 2016 before a rough patch and how fragile that sobriety can be.

“You think that you’re ready, that you’ve gotten sober for a little bit and you can handle stuff,” she said. “And you don’t know you still have some of those skeletons in your closet... .”

Law enforcement officials discussed what they’re doing to help the addiction crisis, recognizing that further assistance can be beneficial instead of simply locking up people with drug charges.

Clark County Sheriff’s Office Capt. Mark Grube reported that even with some of the programming at the Clark County jail limited due to the pandemic, the jail was able to help roughly 200 incarcerated people through 20 programs last year. One includes teaching about simple but powerful things such as how to address their former relationships when they get out of jail and where to go if they need help on the outside.

He said all corrections officers also have access to applications for rehabilitation centers and halfway houses for inmates who request them.

These are in place “so they can know we’re not there just to send them out the door, and we can point them in the right direction when they get out,” Grube said. “It’s a big priority for the sheriff for people to know they’re not alone, and we don’t want them to keep coming to jail.”

Another big initiative expected to enhance policing practices in Jeffersonville is a recently-announced partnership between the Jeffersonville Police Department and LifeSpring Health Systems.

Officers began training last week for the rollout of the program, which is made possible through a $700,000 Department of Justice grant awarded last fall. Officers who identify a person with a substance or mental health issue can then bring in an advocate to help with those issues. The program is expected to start around May.

“For us, this is a huge step,” said Jeffersonville Police Chief Kenny Kavanaugh during the panel presentation. “We’re looking to have some results.”

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