Chef and restaurant owner Louie Bossi, who speaks openly about his recovery, is joined by staff members at Louie Bossi’s Ristorante in Boca Raton. Bossi often hires recovering addicts at his restaurants, and says at least three members of his staffs have relapsed since the arrival of the novel coronavirus. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star
By Charles Elmore
Tony Allerton calls it a situation “we’ve never been through before.”
Amid a COVID-19 pandemic, overdose deaths have doubled in Delray Beach in 2020 and emergency response calls for opioids have climbed by a third in Palm Beach County, reports from police and rescue agencies show.
“It’s a time of survival, whether it’s from the drug of choice or the pandemic,” said Allerton, executive director of the Delray Beach-based Crossroads Club, formed in 1982 to help people cope with drug and alcohol addiction.
Support groups and agencies say they see inspiring efforts every day by people to help themselves and others, but these are conditions that virtually no one anticipated. The virus not only threatened lives and jobs, but in many cases it also closed meeting spaces for 12-step and other recovery groups.
Organizers scrambled to hold meetings by way of Zoom or other online services, racing to stay connected with people at risk. Some groups met outside.
Because of fears of COVID-19 exposure, virtual meetings remain common even as some in-person gatherings have resumed in recent months, typically with masks and distancing. But it has been a difficult battle to break through isolation and despair.
In the third week of March in Delray Beach, “when everything was shut down, there were 17 reported overdoses in one week,” said Ariana Ciancio, service population advocate for the Delray Beach Police Department.
That was roughly triple the weekly average for the first seven months of 2019, when the department responded to a total of 171 overdose calls.
In the first seven months of 2020, the city recorded 229 overdose calls, an increase of 34%.
Overdose deaths in 2020 tracked by Delray Beach police doubled to 42 through July 31, compared to 21 in the same period of 2019.
“No one was prepared for coping with this kind of situation,” Ciancio said. “I have spent years talking about learning proper coping skills, but a global pandemic isn’t something that is frequently discussed in relapse-prevention planning or discharge planning. It is a difficult situation for everyone experiencing it and the only way to get through it is together.”
Her advice for people struggling with addiction: “Utilize support systems, either in person or by Zoom. Utilize family and friends, old connections and sponsors. Even though you are physically distant you have to remain socially connected.”
Nationwide, there are signs the problem may be getting worse as the pandemic drags on.
Preliminary data shows suspected overdoses nationally increased 18% in March, 29% in April and 42% in May, compared to year-earlier periods, according to a Washington Post report. It cited the Overdose Detection Mapping Application Program, a federal initiative that collects information from ambulance teams, hospitals and police.
Other parts of Florida have seen similar spikes. By July, Jacksonville was reporting a 40% increase in overdose calls. Manatee County reported a 44% rise.
An annual fundraiser for Crossroads Club in Delray Beach organized by chef and restaurant owner Louie Bossi and colleagues had to be canceled in June because of the coronavirus.
Bossi, who speaks frankly about his own recovery from addiction, said at least three employees at his restaurants relapsed during the pandemic. Bossi is a partner in restaurants including Louie Bossi’s Ristorante in Boca Raton and Fort Lauderdale and Elisabetta’s Ristorante in Delray Beach.
Workers came to him to express “fear and difficulty,” Bossi said. “I relate to everything they talk about. I’ve been there and done that.”
Born in New York and raised in New Jersey, Bossi has talked about his own previous years of addiction as daily “torture” before he began a different path at Crossroads. He sees the stress in the eyes of people he wants to help.
“It’s caused a lot of relapses and a lot of deaths,” he said.
A different story from 2019
A little more than one year ago, things looked different. Palm Beach County Fire Rescue reported a 21% decrease in opioid overdose patients in the first half of 2019, compared to the first six months of 2018. Since 2017, there had been a 61% decrease in county emergency responses to overdoses, State Attorney Dave Aronberg, working with a Sober Homes Task Force, announced at the time.
By July 31, 2020, Palm Beach County Fire Rescue had logged 1,063 overdose calls for 1,086 patients during the calendar year, according to the department. That compared to 799 calls for 814 patients in the first seven months of 2019, a 33% increase in calls.
A spokesman said he did not have information on overdose deaths.
People who count on meetings for support said isolation was a big factor as the initial impact of COVID-19 began to hit.
“The most immediate concern was meetings — meetings generally held in public spaces,” said one participant, who asked not to be identified, in a recovery group that gathers regularly in southern Palm Beach County. “Once public spaces were shut down, it was challenging. Some people weren’t as open to trying Zoom.”
The pressure has not let up, with one participant in the group dying of an overdose in July, she said. “He had started to get to know people and was really excited about making a new life.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected people in different ways, she said.
“Some people are like, ‘oh my God, I have to get out of my house,’” she said. “There are others saying, ‘oh my God, I have to go to work every day in public.’”
For some people in recovery, 2020 will go down as the year one epidemic met another.
“Individuals working for their recovery are now in a life-and-death struggle,” said Jeffrey Fiorentino, CEO of KipuHealth in Coral Gables, a software provider serving the substance abuse, mental health and eating disorder communities. Palm Beach County’s Sober Homes Task Force posted written remarks from him in meeting materials.
“The two great epidemics of our generation — opioid addiction and COVID-19 — are intersecting in ways that impact and worsen each other,” Fiorentino said. “For individuals in recovery, the social distancing, lack of work, homelessness, anxiety, shattered treatment models, fear of the future and the crushing loneliness of isolation has, in many cases, derailed sobriety. …”
That requires a “reset,” he said, of efforts to help.
Jane Smith contributed to this story.
Overdoses in Delray Beach
Jan. 1 to July 31, 2020 Jan. 1 to July 31, 2019
Overdose calls 229 171
Overdose deaths 42 21
Source: Delray Beach Police Department