Drug overdoses spiked in Nebraska during COVID-19 pandemic

Published: Jun. 28, 2021 at 10:38 PM CDT
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OMAHA, Neb. (WOWT) - More than 92,000 Americans died of a drug overdose in just a single year, and the experts say it’s no coincidence the record-high number happened amid the pandemic.

“We had people who had stable recovery who lost all their support and ended up relapsing and then having overdose deaths,” said Dr. Kenneth Zoucha, an addiction specialist at Nebraska Medicine. “And then I think we had new-onset addiction folks with substance abuse disorders as well.”

John Cleek considers himself lucky to have not overdosed. He’s working through the Open Door Mission’s addiction recovery program.

Prior to entering the program, he was one year sober.

“I was doing well, I was doing real well,” Cleek said. “I got into a carpenters union, and then everything just fell apart.”

The pandemic hit, and business plummeted.

“Finances got a little tight. I worked for myself remodeling houses and stuff. Long story short, I went back to selling drugs to make money,” said Cleek, who found himself on the streets once again. “I was living basically out a of tent in the wintertime when it was -30, -40 degrees. Money was tight, I didn’t have a vehicle, so I resorted to what I knew how to do.”

He said that’s when he relapsed.

“Selling drugs was an easy way to make money, and so I started doing that, and I started using again, too,” he said.

Ashamed and in pain, Cleek said he considered taking his own life.

“I considered many times putting a lot more into a syringe than could handle and doing it,” he said.

More than 200 Nebraskans died of a drug overdose in the last year — that’s more than a 35% jump from the previous 12 months.

“The stress of isolation, the stress of money, the stress of jobs, the fear of the infection, the fear of death from the infection,” all contributing to the soaring numbers, Dr. Zoucha said.

So they turned to drugs often laced with fentanyl.

“So many of the products we’re seeing now in Omaha — we have oxycodone on the streets that has fentanyl in it; we have methamphetamine with fentanyl in it; we have cocaine with fentanyl in it,” Dr. Zoucha said. “In a surgical setting, in an operating room, it’s pretty good stuff; but when you’re using it recreationally in an uncontrolled setting, it’s deadly.”

Cleek considers himself lucky to be here and is determined to come back, encouraging others along the way.

“Don’t give up,” he said. “There’s always light at the end of the tunnel. Just don’t give up, don’t give up on yourself more than anything.”

DO YOU NEED HELP? Call the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, hotline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357). You can also get help locally from Nebraska Medicine or CHI Health; or contact any of several facilities in the Omaha area that provide free services.

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