Drug use is on the rise across the nation as people shelter in place and avoid social gatherings due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent story in the Washington Post highlights how overdoses nationwide rose 18 percent in March, 29 percent in April and 42 percent in May when compared to 2019 figures. And Humboldt County seems to be going in a similar direction. 

Jessica Smith | File Photo

Jessica Smith, executive director of the Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction, said she has seen a large increase in the number of visits from people using HACHR’s services, which include a syringe exchange; Narcan pickup; food, clothing and hygiene products as well as others. Smith said HACHR usually receives around 250 to 350 visits a month, but saw 449 and 468 visitations in April and May respectively. 

“If you are already using and you’re told to stay in place and not do anything, if people are isolated more then I wouldn’t be surprised if they’re using more,” Smith told the Outpost. “We are definitely seeing an increase in new folks.”

HACHR was able to stay open throughout the pandemic and only had to shut down its HIV and Hepatitis C testing as well as its bathrooms. Smith said she wasn’t totally sure that the increase in the number of people using HACHR’s services was due to an increase in drug use or if it was attributed to the fact that the county has slowed its services

HACHR has updated its tracking system and hopes to more effectively measure what services each one of its visitors utilizes. Smith said HACHR has seen 265 unique visitors since from June 1 to July 2. HACHR officials also track reported overdose reversals that visitors report to them. The month of May April saw seven reported overdose reversals and May saw nine.

Leonard Lafrance is a sergeant with the Eureka Police Department’s Community Safety Enhancement Team. Lafrance said there appears to be an increase in drug use, based on what he sees on the streets.

“A couple weeks ago, we had several [overdoses],” Lafrance told the Outpost. “This current week [there] appears to be an increase in meth use resulting in behavior issues.”

Lafrance said he couldn’t chalk up the increase in drug use solely to the pandemic, but added that there has definitely been an increase in the past couple of weeks. Lafrance and the CSET team have a working relationship with Waterfront Recovery Services in Eureka. The team has funds from Measure Z to bring people with addiction problems off the streets and into care at Waterfront and this service was also able to continue mostly unabated during the pandemic. 

Dr. Ruby Bayan | File Photo

Dr. Ruby Bayan is the medical director of Waterfront and told the Outpost that Waterfront initially saw a decrease in the number of people seeking treatment. Waterfront had to cut services to those struggling with alcoholism at first because of the complications — such as seizures — that can occur during a withdrawal.

“When that happens, we have to send them to the emergency room,” Bayan said. “So instead of keeping our facility open and needing to have the ambulance come here and take the patient out, we decided that we were not going to take high-risk detox patients.”

However, that has since changed and Waterfront is now accepting all types of people seeking relief. During the first months of the pandemic Waterfront shut down its visitation services for alumni speakers and family members of those in treatment. Waterfront officials have turned this policy on and off depending on the rise and fall of cases in the community and are in constant contact with Public Health officials. Bayan said they only had to turn away three people who appeared symptomatic and that there have been no cases at the treatment facility. 

When it comes to funding, Bayan said they are doing well and do not expect any major economic hits. She said Waterfront was able to secure a loan from the federal Small Business Administration as well as some funds through the Center for Disease Control’s Provider Relief Fund Essential Business Support Fund through the state for personal protective equipment. 

Waterfront will also now be accepting MediCal for its treatment services. An agreement with the state-run program called Drug MediCal was just finalized and starting this month, people who are on MediCal and want to go into treatment will be able to use its state-issued health insurance. 

MediCal recipients will also be able to access services through Beacon Health, according to Raena West, the substance use disorder administrator for Humboldt’s Department of Health and Human Services. In an email to the Outpost, West said that the county also saw a decrease in the number of seeking addiction services. 

“Recently, we’ve seen the requests for services pick up slightly since the Shelter-in-Place Order was revised to specify that residents can leave their shelter to participate in allowable activities,” West said. 

The county is also working with Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous to allow the groups to start meeting in person in a safe manner. But for now, the groups are running meetings virtually. 

Back over at HACHR, Smith said they too are starting a new pilot program that is utilizing the digital space. HACHR partnered with Bright Heart Health, a telemedicine company that specializes in digital opiate and addiction services. People looking to kick their opioid addiction can reach a doctor that same day and get a prescription for Suboxone, a medication that prevents opioid cravings. So far, 16 people have used the service and only one decided they weren’t ready to quit yet, Smith said. 

“Bright Heart is really taking a harm reduction approach,” Smith said. “It’s a huge game changer for our community.”


If you or a loved are in need of addiction services here is some information on where you can reach the organizations mentioned in the article:

Waterfront Recovery Services can be reached at 707-269-9590

Humboldt Area Center for Harm Reduction can be reached at 707-407-6013

Beacon Health can be reached at 855-765-9703