Doug Huntsinger

“When people start to feel disconnected, we have to be there for them as a community.” said Doug Huntsinger, Indiana’s director for Drug Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement.

INDIANA — Preliminary data show that compared with 2019, last year had nearly a 50% increase in overdoses seen in emergency departments in Indiana, with an 18% rise across the U.S. in just the first four months of the pandemic.

During a virtual presentation Wednesday as part of Clark County CARES Drug Facts Week, Indiana’s Director for Drug Prevention, Treatment and Enforcement, Doug Huntsinger, talked about the toll the pandemic has taken.

This is closely linked with what he and local health officials know about addiction — that isolation like what was experienced during the lockdowns can have a devastating effect on a person trying to enter or maintain sobriety.

“For Hoosiers with substance use disorder, the pandemic has really exacerbated those feelings of isolation, stress, fear and it leaves many to cope the only way they know how,” he said. “They say the opposite of addiction isn’t sobriety, it’s connection and we know how difficult it’s been to stay connected over the last 10 months.

“When people start to feel disconnected, we have to be there for them as a community.”

Another indication of the rise in overdoses has been the use of the opioid overdose reversal drug naloxone — in 2020 alone, there was a 67% increase in the medication being used compared to the same time in 2020.

When state leaders saw these signs, “we acted,” he said.

Indiana has now committed $1 million to help provide 25,000 naloxone kits, and in partnership with nonprofit Overdose Lifeline, Inc., has been able to distribute 22,000 of these statewide.

This does not include the roughly 25,000 distributed by 54 local health departments across the state, through funding provided by the Indiana State Department of Health.

Another major step toward making the life-saving drug accessible came when Indiana Medicaid applied for and was approved to be able to reimburse first responders not only for administering naloxone, but for the cost of the kits themselves. Indiana has been the first state to do so.

In November, the Indiana Department of Correction began offering naloxone to all people upon release from incarceration.

“Expanding the availability of this overdose reversal drug to our offenders upon release is just a small way we can help transition them back into our community and set them up for success,” Huntsinger said during the presentation, adding that “We’re committed to expanding awareness of the need for bystanders to carry this lifesaving drug which is why we’ve made it available via so many avenues.”

In the first part of the pandemic, the state information hotline 211 began receiving an inordinate number of calls, many of which were related to mental health and suicidal thoughts. State officials created the Be Well Crisis Helpline at the same number, where people in despair can call at any time and talk with a trained counselor at no cost.

Between July 20 and Dec. 30, the crisis line had received 6,049 calls, with the average call time just over 18 minutes. Forty-nine percent had pre-existing trauma with mental health or substance use.

Thanks to the quick actions of our counselors, our callers were able to be referred for mental health and substance use disorder, Huntsinger said.

The director also pointed to COVID-19-related legislation moving through the statehouse. Although responding to the pandemic is the first priority, it’s also “made us rethink how we deliver health care during a public health emergency and post-pandemic.”

On Tuesday morning, legislation passed a Senate committee, which, if approved, would clarify and expand telehealth options. There is also legislation in the works that would extend the 10-year extension to syringe service programs in Indiana. The sunset date now is July 2022 on the clinics, which provide clean syringes, access to critical primary health care and resources for treatment.

“Moving forward, we must not only help those who have a new substance-use disorder seek treatment and enter recovery, but we have to develop the supports and the connections to help keep people in recovery and I think legislative agenda is the start to that,” Huntsinger said.

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