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"Please reach out for help" | Pandemic continues to challenge overdose epidemic response

Data from the Knox County District Attorney's Office shows 176 deaths so far this year. A major spike came from March until May during the shutdown.

KNOX COUNTY, Tenn. — Suspected overdose deaths continue to harm Knox County. 

Data from the Knox County District Attorney's Office shows 176 deaths so far this year. A major spike came from March until May, as businesses closed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

Experts said deaths are 23 percent higher compared to last year.

"We're hoping the numbers are starting to stabilize now, as communities open up a little bit," said Karen Pershing with Metro Drug Coalition. 

In the midst of the pandemic lies other illnesses — isolation and hopelessness.

"It's a disease of isolation and now we're all isolated," said Hilde Phipps with Helen Ross McNabb. "Not everyone wants to use telehealth. Not everyone is willing to go to a 12 step meeting online."

The cure can be more complicated than the cure for the coronavirus. It takes connections with other people to treat substance use disorder and addiction, which can be hard to find during the pandemic. 

During the shutdown from March to May, Knox County saw 100 suspected overdose deaths. During the same time frame in 2019, there were 71 deaths.

Experts said reaching out for help isn't always easy. 

"I just don't know how easy it is to seek help during a time of stress, when you start to close in and you're not at your best," said Phipps. 

There is one thing that will always be true: people want to know that there is hope to overcome substance abuse.

"There's nobody that's not struggling with something right now so there's no shame in reaching out for help and saying I need more support right now," she said. 

By July 21, the Knox County District Attorney General's Office reported 15 deaths. The statistic hasn't been that low since February, but many say it's still too many. 

"Hopefully, we start going back down again like we saw in 2019," said Pershing. 

And with COVID-19 cases rising, it's clear that normalcy is still far away. 

"There's nowhere for us to get away from a pandemic because it's literally everywhere, so it's a stressful time for everyone," said Phipps. "Please reach out for help."

Experts recommend checking in on loved ones if they're struggling — especially if they recently lost their job. 

If you or someone you know is struggling with addiction, there are resources where you can find help.

The number for Tennessee REDLINE is 1-800-889-9789.

There's also the Metro Drug Coalition at 865-588-5550 and the Helen Ross McNabb Center at 1-800-255-9711.

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