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Western Mass. First Responders Say Opioid, Alcohol Calls Spiking During Pandemic

County Ambulance

According to first responders in Berkshire County’s largest community, calls for overdoses and alcohol related emergencies are skyrocketing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Brian Andrews is president of County Ambulance.

“We are a family owned ambulance here in Pittsfield, Massachusetts which serves the city of Pittsfield. We’re on a rotation basis providing EMS to the 911 system here in Pittsfield,” he told WAMC.

With its 10 ambulances, 19 wheelchair vans, and around 110 employees, County Ambulance also serves surrounding communities that don’t have paramedics or full-time EMS.

“We also provide nonemergency service to the hospitals and nursing facilities in the area who need transportation for their folks,” said Andrews.

COVID-19 has affected every part of the company, from the measures it takes to reduce possible transmission while providing care to its new function of assisting with home coronavirus testing.

“We are in some ways less busy because our 911 volume has gone down, believe it or not," said Andrew. "During this we have seen people not calling as often for emergencies, and it appears as though people are somewhat concerned that they may catch COVID-19 by going to the hospital so they have not as readily as they normally do call for service.”

The calls that continue to go through tell a grim story about the impact of the pandemic on those grappling with addiction.

WAMC: I’m looking over some of the data you sent over – opiate related overdoses. The calls you’ve received this April are twice that of last April. That’s six in 2020 to three in 2019. It says that you’ve responded to 11 related alcohol overdoses this year as opposed to zero last April. What do you tie this to? Is this all a result of pandemic?

ANDREWS: You know, it really does appear to be that. We certainly see spikes throughout the year to those different areas, but there really appears to be a pattern that since February hit, we’ve seen increases in all of those areas. And really taking a hard look at it, we’re afraid that it’s the fact that people have really had their ability to move about restricted and they have not the same ability to get the same support services as well in this time.

County Ambulance also monitors its patients who have experienced overdoses. Normally, they’d have in-person Narcotics Anonymous or Alcoholics Anonymous meetings to rely on.

“Now, that’s all changed to a video or telephone set up – and that doesn’t work for everybody," said Andrews. "So I really do think there’s a close tie-in with the COVID situation.”

As early as late March, Andrews says the writing was on the wall – not just in Pittsfield, but around Berkshire County.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has really ignited an urgency to our work, as we have seen a dramatic increase in overdoses, both fatal and nonfatal, in some but not all of Berkshire County communities," said Jennifer Kimball, a principal planner for public health at the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, and the coordinator of the Berkshire Opioid Addiction Prevention Collaborative. It brings groups like County Ambulance together with fellow emergency responders and community leaders to confront the opioid epidemic.

“We have accelerated our check-in calls with local partners and service providers and first responders," said Kimball. "We basically meet about every other week to kind of touch base on kind of what the pulse of Berkshire County is related to opiate use disorder, but other substances as well and related mental health issues.”

As regional leaders work on a coordinated response to the rising overdoses, Andrews says for County Ambulance, morale remains strong despite everything.

“There’s been many success stories that really, again, helps our staff too with their mental wellness knowing that we are doing good in this very challenging time, and certainly they feel valued doing the testing that we’re doing," Andrews told WAMC. "We’re going out and testing individuals that otherwise may not get tested when they may by symptomatic. It’s been a challenging time, but it also has its rewards. We’ve seen the best and worst during these times.”

Josh Landes has been WAMC's Berkshire Bureau Chief since February 2018, following stints at WBGO Newark and WFMU East Orange. A passionate advocate for Western Massachusetts, Landes was raised in Pittsfield and attended Hampshire College in Amherst, receiving his bachelor's in Ethnomusicology and Radio Production. His free time is spent with his cat Harry, experimental electronic music, and exploring the woods.
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