Overshadowed: Overdose Lifeline focuses on opioid epidemic in midst of pandemic

The unprecedented nature of the coronavirus crisis has been the focus of health officials, government leaders and the community since early March.

Everything has revolved around the pandemic.

But while the virus has raged, another ongoing public health crisis has continued to destroy lives. Those working to end the opioid epidemic have seen COVID-19 overshadow a problem that has been exacerbated by stay-at-home orders.

"With all of the shelter-in-place and isolation, I’ve heard quite a few times, just in the last few weeks, we have lost children to opioid overdoses," said David Plew, a Center Grove area resident whose son Leland died of an overdose in 2014. "This problem isn’t going away. And anecdotally, just from people I know, it’s spiking."

The coronavirus has not deterred or stopped Overdose Lifeline from its important work of providing naloxone, better known as Narcan, to communities throughout the state. In addition, the nonprofit has expanded efforts to educate, raise awareness and train people to better address the opioid and addiction problem facing the state.

Their work remains vital, even if the spotlight has moved away from the opioid problem, said Justin Phillips, founder of Overdose Lifeline.

"It hasn’t gone away. It hasn’t been mitigated, and it’s in fact worse," she said.

Overdose Lifeline will host its annual golf outing on June 18 at Dye’s Walk Country Club in Greenwood. The outing, which had to be postponed due to COVID-19 restrictions, is one of the organization’s most important funding sources.

"We have to keep awareness to this sort of other crisis," Phillips said. "We have people who care about Overdose Lifeline and still want to contribute to the cause. And we wanted to give people something to look forward to."

According to the American Medical Association, more than 20 states have reported increases in opioid-related mortality since the COVID-19 pandemic started.

Indiana keeps track of Naxolone administration by emergency medical personnel all over the state. In the past 30 days, hotspots of overdoses appear in Greenwood, throughout Franklin and in Edinburgh.

Even then, the true extent of how COVID-19 is impacting overdoses is unknown, Phillips said.

"The challenge really is individuals are not going to the emergency room because they’re afraid of getting coronavirus," she said. "We don’t really know statistically how much the increase has occurred. We only have these anecdotal stories. But these stories are very close to home."

During the pandemic, Overdose Lifeline has distributed 300 additional naloxone kits across the state than they had planned to address this crisis. The state has provided funding for more naloxone kits, and Overdose Lifeline has received about 200 requests for help. 

"I believe all of the momentum we gained in reducing overdose deaths will be lost because of COVID-19 — because of social isolation, because people don’t have a recovery support system they need," Phillips said. "Human connection is an important part of recovery, and without it, it’s just difficult."

Overdose Lifeline was founded in 2014 by Phillips, following the death of her son, Aaron Sims, of an overdose in 2013. The group’s mission is helping individuals, families and communities affected by addiction and substance use disorder, particularly issues involving opioids. The group focuses on advocacy, education, harm reduction, prevention and support.

"We continue to be on the frontline of a crisis that some people would say is not significantly better," Phillips said. "We’re still losing 192 people each day, and I meet or am introduced to a new family with a loss weekly."

Though the distribution of Naxolone was the starting point for the organization, it has since branched out into all different areas of the opioid epidemic.

Online education has been paired with its in-person programs to help spread the word about addiction and the dangers of opioids. The group has given out test strips that can detect if Fentanyl is present in other substances or drugs. Fentanyl, a synthetic opioid that can be 100 times more powerful than morphine, has been attributed to the massive increase in overdose deaths in recent years, according to the Indiana State Department of Health.

Overdose Lifeline does receive some grant money for its programs, but much of its activities are made possible by donations and fundraising. The annual golf outing has become its biggest money-maker.

The outing was created by Taylor Kennell and other friends of Leland Plew, the 22-year-old Center Grove area resident who died of an overdose in 2014. Plew was an avid golfer, and his friends wanted to do something involving the game to honor him and others lost to addiction.

The idea grew to honor others who had been victims of the opioid epidemic. Since 2015, the outing has raised more than $100,000.

Initially, this year’s event was scheduled for mid-May. But organizers moved it back as a precaution as the pandemic altered plans around the world.

"We’ve been monitoring what the golf courses are saying we can do, and adjusting accordingly. It was really their call first and foremost," Phillips said.

Safety precautions will be in place, restricting how people can use golf carts on the course. Masks and hand sanitizer will be available for people, and organizers have also put together a "pay not to play" option — people that have safety concerns or are at a high risk of getting sick can support the cause anyway.

"We’ll work with the golf course to ensure social distancing during registration, and for the meal that we have, it’ll be a boxed lunch. We’re going to follow all of those guidelines," Plew said.

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Overdoes Lifeline Memorial Charity Golf Outing

What: A golf outing and silent auction in memory of Guy Justus, Brandon Justice, Leland Plew, Jarrod Polston, Aaron Sims and all other lives lost to drugs and alcohol. The event benefits Overdose Lifeline.

When: 10:30 a.m. June 18; lunch begins at 11 a.m., with shotgun start at noon

Where: Dye’s Walk Country Club, 2080 S. State Road 135, Greenwood

Registration: Individual, $95; teams of four, $380

How to register: overdoselifeline.org/golf-outing

How to help: Even those who don’t want to golf can contribute financially at overdoselifeline.org/donate