An epidemic during a pandemic

While Greene County has adjusted to the presence of COVID-19 for the past seven months, the opioid epidemic has evolved, according to officials.

By Sept. 25, Gene Rush, Greene County Coroner, said nine people have died due to drug overdose this year. In the past two years, 12 died of an overdose in 2019 and seven in 2018.

Tom Ankrom, Waynesburg Police chief, said he has seen a rise of methamphetamine use this year that has continued from last year. According to records from the Greene County Coroner’s Office, which only has the official toxicology reports of eight overdose deaths in 2020, three involved methamphetamine. The records show 2019 had two overdoses with the drug involved, while 2018 saw one.

“We are still getting some opioid stuff, but not nearly as much as we used to,” Ankrom said.

The rise of methamphetamine in Greene County is a sign of the evolution of the opioid epidemic on a national level, said Toni Harris, program supervisor for the Greenbriar Treatment Center’s nearby Washington location. Crystal meth spread from the West Coast to the East Coast, and then to rural communities, Harris explained.

“I think when [the nation] was having a lot of people dying from heroin overdoses a couple years ago… when it was given a lot of press and there was fentanyl in the heroin,” Harris said, “I think people switched to crystal meth at that time because they didn’t want to die, but they wanted to keep using.”

Ankrom said the switch to crystal meth is the outcome of users wanting a different experience. On heroin, people will almost “fall asleep on you,” Ankrom said, while crystal meth causes a boost of energy that will keep the user awake for days.

Methamphetamine is not an opioid, but a stimulant drug, according to National Institute on Drug Abuse’s website. The drug increases the amount of dopamine in the brain, which is involved in “the body’s movement, motivation, and reinforcement of reward behaviors,” the institute wrote. The increase in the reward behavior in the body, the NIH wrote on their website, is what makes the drug addictive.

Coroner records confirmed there have been no overdose deaths this year resulting mainly from acute intoxication of methamphetamine so far. Two acute intoxications this year so far were from a mixture of opioids and methamphetamines. One case in 2019 involved acute intoxication mainly from crystal meth and one death involving crystal meth and opioids. 2018 contained one overdose involving crystal meth and opioids.

Another drug that has entered the county is methadone, Rush said, which is an opioid used to treat opioid drug disorder and as a pain medication, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

“They are going for a stronger high. They are mixing methadone and heroin. It’s making it lethal,” Rush said.

According to the coroner’s records, 2020 so far has one confirmed overdose death confirmed in resulting from acute intoxication involving methadone use. There were none in 2019 and one intoxication involving the drug in 2018.

Ankrom and Rush said the trends of the increased use of methamphetamine and methadone is not an effect of COVID-19. In addition, both men said COVID-19 has not created any new patterns or irregularities with the opioid epidemic in the county.

“At the beginning of the pandemic, especially in March, we had an uptick in thefts from motor vehicles,” Ankrom said. “We had an uptick in domestic calls, which I kind of attribute to people being cooped up in a house together, but nothing related to drugs that I noticed that really stuck out. It was pretty much the same.”

In Waynesburg, Ankrom explained COVID-19 has not affected the rate of police involvement with drug-related issues. Overall, it has been “relatively steady,” he said.