This summer, the Georgia Department of Public Health has reported that its syndromic surveillance system has picked up increasing drug overdose-involved emergency department visits throughout Georgia.
In a memo to statewide partners in June, Emily Hosterman, syndromic surveillance drug overdose epidemiologist for the DPH, said they are alerting partners to be vigilant about any unusual drug overdose activity.
“The Georgia Department of Public Health needs your help to determine if an increase in drug overdoses is truly occurring before initiating further public health response, and we are alerting partners to be vigilant about any unusual drug overdose activity,” Hosterman said in the memo.
Hosterman said that syndromic surveillance is an almost real-time method of categorizing visits from emergency rooms across Georgia into disease or illness syndromes, based on a patient’s chief complaint when admitted.
Participating hospitals send this data to the DPH daily. Hosterman said a drug overdose syndrome is identified by searching a patient’s chief complaint for symptoms that match a drug overdose.
The DPH monitors the data to see if there are unusually high numbers of drug overdoses on local and state levels. The data can be used as a detection method for drug overdose outbreaks, Hosterman said.
Hosterman said the U.S. is currently facing two national public health emergencies – COVID-19 and drug overdoses. She said that in Georgia, the recent increase in drug overdose emergency visits seems to overlap with the emergence of COVID-19.
According to recent data from the DPH, for nine weeks beginning April 4, the syndromic surveillance system identified an average weekly increase of 3 percent in ED visits with drug overdose syndrome. One of the weeks was the third-highest weekly count for the past year.
Over the same 11-week period, beginning March 22, the syndromic surveillance system identified an average weekly increase of 5.9 percent in opioid-involved ED visits among patients with drug overdose syndrome. This period included three weekly counts that were the top three highest for the past year.
Also over the 11-week period, the syndromic surveillance identified an average weekly increase of 6.4 percent in suspected heroin-involved ED visits among patients with drug overdose syndrome. This period included four weekly counts in the top three for the past year.
The DPH also reported that preliminary results for fentanyl-involved overdose deaths among Georgia residents show a 17 percent increase comparing the five-month period – December 2019 to April 2020 – to the previous five-month period – July to November 2019.
Nationally, the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program reported a 17.59 percent increase in overdoses reported from March 19, 2020, through May 19, 2020, compared to Jan. 1, 2020, through March 18, 2020. Over 61 percent of ODMAP participating counties reported an increase during that time.
Recovery during COVID-19
Hank Arnold is the executive director of Coweta F.O.R.C.E., a local nonprofit that provides support for recovery from addiction. He said isolation during the shelter in place order was very difficult for those in recovery, even those who have been sober for years.
Arnold said the increase in overdoses at the state and national levels are touching us locally. He said there has to be a balance between working on recovery while being safe during the COVID-19 pandemic.
He added that even those who typically don’t struggle with substance abuse are beginning to because of the stress surrounding the pandemic.
Arnold said part of the long-term effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will be how people handle the uncertainty of the future.
However, he said this may be a place where people can learn from those in recovery. He mentioned a Medium article entitled “10 Secrets People in Recovery from Addiction Know that Could Help Us All Survive this Global Pandemic.”
Arnold said principles that are taught in recovery include accepting the things you can’t change, learning to live in the moment and making good decisions in the moment, and not spending too much time focused on the future.
“Living in the moment is tough for people who are intentionally trying to do it,” Arnold said. “It takes intention when nothing is certain and everything is disrupted.”
He said these principles can be applied for those who are dealing with uncertainty during this difficult time for many.
As for Coweta F.O.R.C.E.’s efforts during this time, they are currently hosting in-person, and some hybrid, virtual and in-person, meetings. Arnold said they have masks and hand sanitizer available and have markings for 6-foot distancing.
He said the biggest challenges the organization has faced during the pandemic is how they get creative to connect with people from a safe distance, and how people maintain recovery.
Arnold said addiction is a chronic treatable disease, and the recovery rates are similar to other treatable chronic diseases, such as diabetes. He said it can be managed by a healthy lifestyle and by keeping fit spiritually, socially and emotionally. Arnold said maintaining recovery has a lot to do with routines, which have had to be adapted to the pandemic.
He said for many people, going to the gym is a big part of their recovery, so when gyms closed, they had to figure out a new routine. Arnold said those in recovery have had to establish a new routine in a way that’s healthy and not obsessive.
In addition to meetings, Coweta F.O.R.C.E. is offering free check-ins virtually over Zoom, over the phone or in-person. Arnold said the check-ins are a conversation about what action steps someone can take.
For more information, visit www.CowetaForce.org or the Coweta F.O.R.C.E. Facebook page or call 678-633-5688.
The Georgia Council on Substance Abuse hosts online meetings and operates the CARES Warm Line for people who need support. The phone line is staffed daily from 8:30 a.m. to 11 p.m. and can be reached by calling or texting at 844-326-5400. The online meetings can be found at gasubstanceabuse.org .