There is a health crisis raging all around us; one that impacts first responders, frontline workers, and families, and it’s not COVID-19. Until it was pushed off the front page in early 2020 by the coronavirus pandemic, the opioid epidemic, a massive focus of federal, state and local health governments and health agencies, was the number one medical crisis in the country.
CDC Director Robert Redfield, in April of 2019, stated that the opioid crisis is “the public health issue of our time.”
Now, in this time of uncertainty, anxiety, and isolation, the issue is complicated further, and now amplified for those suffering from addiction, mental illness, and struggling through recovery.
Tewksbury and Wilmington are part of a larger collaborative of communities that work to educate, coordinate and support those who are in the throes of substance use issues. Maria Ruggiero, the Substance Abuse Prevention Collaborative Program Director for the Greater Lowell area, is centered at the Tewksbury Police Department as part of a civilian corps of responders who help guide residents of seven towns to resources for prevention, treatment and recovery.
Ruggiero works in concert with Samantha Reif, Health and Recovery Coordinator for the Wilmington Police Department. Ruggiero and Reif also work with recovery coaches in their respective towns, and assist with referrals throughout the Merrimack Valley for those who are struggling through all phases of addiction and recovery.
Reif and Ruggiero, in a recent teleconference with the Town Crier, explained that there has been an uptick in overdoses, notably since the coronavirus pandemic has struck. In addition, those that have been in long-term recovery from drug or alcohol use have relapsed.
“The isolation has been very difficult, especially for those who depend on face-to-face contact as part of their recovery program,” said Reif.
While the support services have adapted quickly to provide online or telehealth counseling and support, for some, it just isn’t the same.
“We have some people who don’t want to engage over the phone or online,” said Reif. “We try to recommend strategies they can use, such as letting others know they are struggling, call for support if they are using [drugs], have NARCAN on hand in case of an overdose, etc.”
Ruggiero, whose focus is on education and harm reduction, discussed the issue of liquor stores being deemed “essential” at this time.
“We don’t want to encourage people to use alcohol, but if people were cut off from it, they could go into fatal withdrawal,” she said.
She and Reif both acknowledged that alcohol delivery with meals also introduces liquor into the home, and they worry about juvenile access and use. However, at this time when nurses and doctors are being pulled from other disciplines to help support the pandemic response, there are just not enough services to help the large number of people who could go into withdrawal and need care.
Officer Jennie Welch of the Tewksbury Police Department receives the crisis calls for Tewksbury.
“It’s hard to comfort someone when you can’t get near them, or they can’t see your face because of the mask,” she said.
But Welch said that people should not hesitate to call any of the hotline numbers.
“Someone will get back to you almost immediately,” Welch said, “we are here for you.”
Matt Page-Shelton, Regional Director for Frontline Initiative, a collaborative of Tewksbury, Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut and Tyngsboro, is also based in Tewksbury and said that his staff is very busy on the crisis intervention and recovery side.
“This is just an extraordinary time,” said Page-Shelton.
Page-Shelton said there has been a 40 percent increase in substance related calls to their agency since mid-March. Page-Shelton said that recovery coaches and counselors are doing what they can to keep people from using or relapsing.
“The strain on resources and first responders at this time has had us do what we can to keep people safe,” which might mean checking in several times per day, referring clients to teleconference support meetings and the like.
As civilians, the support staff know they walk a fine line, especially with those consuming drugs and alcohol, but they are trying to keep the strain off of medical facilities.
“We have resources we can channel people to before they resort to the hospital,” said Page-Shelton.
Page-Shelton also said that resources are available for people regardless of ability to pay.
“Services are grant-funded and are no cost/insurance blind,” and that all the organizations who support addiction and recovery do whatever they can to use their resources to support those who want them.
“Those that are relapsing after having a year or more or sobriety under their belts is just crushing for the counselors. The more people are isolated, the more addiction can take hold,” said Page-Shelton.
Job loss and financial worries are also factors that raise anxiety levels.
As a way to battle isolation, some support groups have gone online, but access to computers or other tech is not always available. There have been reports of support meetings held on video conference platforms being “Zoom bombed,” impacting the trust and security of the meeting environment for attendees, according to the counselors.
Page-Shelton said that his counselors are trying to tell their clients to stay busy, go for a walk, or find a new hobby. Reif said that she is checking in much more frequently, sometimes multiple times a day, with people she is working with, to support them through their struggles.
Ruggiero and Welch urge family members to keep the following resource list handy and reach out at any time.
Welch said, “even our first responders are having to learn how to cope with the strain of this pandemic; adopting breathing exercises and meditation — this is affecting everyone.”
If you or someone you know is in need of addiction support services, the following resources are available at no cost, regardless of ability to pay.
• Front Line Initiative Community Line: 978-215-9642 (serves towns of Billerica, Chelmsford, Dracut, Tewksbury, Tyngsborough)
• Wilmington Crisis Intervention: Samantha Reif 978-447-2296 (text or call) or email email@example.com
• Recovery Coaches available by contacting 978-447-2296 (Wilmington) or 978-382-4989 (Tewksbury)
• Online Recovery Meeting (The Front Door) — led by PAARI Recovery Coaches from Wilmington and Tewksbury
Substance Abuse Services
• Helpline Hotline: 1-800-327-5050
• Substance Abuse Mental Health Services Association (SAMHSA): https:
• Mass Organization of Addiction Recovery: https://www.moar-recovery.org
• AA: 978-957-4690, https://www.aabosmeetings.org/
• NA: 866-624-3578, https://www.nerna.org/
• Smart Recovery: https://www.smartrecovery.org/
• Learn to Cope: 508-801-3247, https://www.learn2cope.org
• Families Anonymous: 978-973-5645, https://www.familiesanonymous.org
• Alanon: 888-425-2666, https://al-anon.org/
• Tewksbury Prevention Education and Outreach: Maria Ruggiero 978-382-4989, https://www.facebook.com/TewksburyCARES/
• 24/7 Emergency Crisis Team (Psychiatric Care): Advocates at 1-800-640-5432
• Suicide Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
• Hospital: Lahey Hospital’s Psychiatry and Behavioral Medicine Department at 781-744-8013