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Knox County Drug Overdose Deaths Spike During COVID

Knox County has seen a spike in suspected drug overdose deaths this year, most starkly during the first few months of COVID-19. By the end of August last year, 170 people had died from a suspected drug overdose. By that date in 2020, there were 218 deaths. 

Karen Pershing is the executive director of the Metro Drug Coalition and says long-term resources and social support for people in recovery have been limited during the pandemic.

"It can take anywhere from 18 to 24 months for an addicted brain to heal," Pershing said. "That’s why we’re seeing so many overdoses in our community right now due to COVID. Its because we’ve had to shut down some of those social connections and resources that people normally would have to others in recovery." 

Samantha Monday, a substance abuse case manager at Knox County Sheriff's Office, said the number of places for people in recovery to stay has taken a hit this year. 

"A big problem we run into is that we just don’t have enough beds," Monday said. "And unfortunately due to COVID that has shrunk down the amount of beds that we have available to us."

Knox County District Attorney's office began collecting and reporting data on suspected drug overdose deaths in 2017. The data show spring and summer 2020 were the deadliest periods since 2017 for drug overdoses. 

Before this period, Karen Pershing said regional data on addiction and substance misuse was very limited.

"There is very little local data available on the opioid problem and addiction in general. I could find a lot of national data, some state data, but local data was just very hard to come by," Pershing said. 

More data is expected soon. In February 2019, Knoxville and Knox County launched an initiative called All4Knox, which connects non-profits and public agencies in various sectors to address substance misuse.

The initiative's community-wide strategic plan is expected this fall, according to Amy Dolinky, the All4Knox substance misuse coordinator with the Knox County Health Department.

“This is not a problem that one group or one organization or one sector alone can solve," Dolinky said. "What’s really critical is that we all have a role to play in addressing substance misuse and the impacts on the individuals and families in our community.”