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As virus spikes, so does substance abuse
Treatment centers seeing troubling demand



COVID-19 isn't the only disease running rampant in the Northwoods.

Addiction counselors said that as the pandemic has taken its toll on the Bay Area, substance abuse problems have mirrored the spike in local cases — and related safety restrictions.

Patients reporting alcohol, methamphetamine and other addiction problems have increased at both Memorial Medical Center's Behavioral Health Unit and NorthLakes Community Clinic, both of which treat the disease of addiction.

Opioid overdoses in Ashland County increased in every month except May and July this year through August, the latest month for which statistics are available, as compared to last year. Local ambulance crews were called 26 times over the first eight months of the year to suspected opioid overdoses — up from seven calls for the same period of 2019, according to the state Department of Health Services.

Of those 26 calls, crews used a medication to reverse the effects of overdoses 19 times.

Allison Allen, a psychologist and chief behavioral health officer for NorthLakes, said substance abuse counselors anticipated the spike as soon as the Allen ramifications of the pandemic — from lockdowns and quarantines to lost jobs and social isolation —

became apparent.

"One of the keys to recovering from addiction is and staying sober is getting connected to lots of different people in a lot of different ways and getting a lot of structure to your days," Allen said. "Obviously, all that goes away during the pandemic. That is true for opiates and any other substance that you want to talk about. People are in a terrible bind."

It's that lack of human connection during the pandemic that most worries Tom Jensen, director at MMC's Behavioral Health Unit. Patients in the throes of addiction tend to isolate and disconnect even during the best of times, so conditions today make it easier for both for someone to start abusing alcohol and other drugs and more difficult to seek help.

"One of the key elements in recovering from any addiction is getting connected with others. Isolation and loneliness are fuels that keep an addiction alive," he said. "And of course the pandemic is asking us to please stay in the house, please socially isolate from others. It's just contrary to everything we have used in our toolbox to help people in their recovery."

Another issue, Allen said, is that people are far more likely to relapse if they are under stress, something that happens especially in the early days of recovery with isolation and loss of support systems such as self-help groups like Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous. In the Bay Area, most face-toface AA and NA groups have shut down.

"(Addicts) have all the other stresses that everybody else has — worries about their health and their family members' health. Maybe they have lost their jobs or have gotten laid off. So they have all those other stresses and at the same time they are losing the supports they really need to recover," she said.

The results can be seen statewide in statistics that show emergency room use for opioid overdoses in Wisconsin have gone up 39% in 2020 over 2019.

"It's going to be a terrible shame if people do all of their due diligence for their physical health — they wear their masks and wash their hands, they socially distance — and then they are killed by aspects of their mental health: depression, suicide and addiction," Allen said. "It is a huge additional risk to our public health that is riding around on the tail of this pandemic."

Allen said it falls upon the entire community, be it professionals or just friends and family members willing to lend a sympathetic ear — to help people in recovery maintain connections.

"We humans are just not made for isolation," she said. "While we have to stay safe, we have to find ways to connect."

Allen said NorthLakes is working to ensure that people are aware of the clinic's services an how to access them in person, via computer screen or on the phone.

But even with all those services available, she fears the long-term consequences of the pandemic.

"Sales for alcohol are just going through the roof, and you can just see that as a wave of future folks who are lost to addiction," she said. And that likely means an increase in related social problems such as domestic and child abuse, she said.

And while illicit drugs — opioids and meth — get a lot of attention in the media and from lawmakers, Allen said alcohol abuse remains "hands down" the most serious problem in the region.

"It's easily available, it's socially approved, and while there are plenty of folks who will also use street drugs and alcohol, there are many more who will use alcohol and will never use street drugs. Alcohol is a net that is thrown over almost all people who use substances at all," she said.

Shannon Esala, a recovery services program coordinator at the Behavioral Health Unit, said the pandemic has exacerbated the community's already-dire drinking problem, with not just more people abusing alcohol, but also using more of it.

"The blood-alcohol levels (of patients coming into treatment) on average have increased quite a bit. They are consistently on the rise," she said.

If there's any good news, it is that help still is available. Allen said the NorthLakes program is not turning anyone away, at least not yet.

But capacity could become more of an issue the longer the pandemic goes on, she said. She and other experts fear that some people are avoiding seeking help because they don't want to risk being in treatment with someone who has the virus.

"I think need and demand will both increase over time here, but currently anyone who reaches out to us will be able to be seen," she said.

Esala said her organization, like many others across the nation, is working on developing a hybrid approaches to provide treatment in the age of COVID, trying to find what works best among tools such as telecare, phone conferencing and face-to-face treatment where possible.

MMC admitting few virus patients
Plans in place for possible patient rush

With more than 50,000 new cases of COVID-19 in the past three weeks in Wisconsin, the much feared coronavirus surge has hit the state with a vengeance.

Ashland County recorded its third virus-related death over the weekend, one of nearly 1,500 who have died of the virus or its complications in the state. More than 8,400 people across Wisconsin are hospitalized with the virus and the State Department of Health Services reports that 84% of hospital beds are filled as the number of coronavirus cases continues to climb.

But while state health officials have announced that a field hospital will be opening soon at the state fairgrounds near Milwaukee as the surge threatens to overwhelm hospitals there, the situation is far less dire in Ashland County.

Memorial Medical Center Chief Operating Officer Karen Hansen said that MMC has recorded a spike in the number of positive local COVID-19 tests, but that has not translated to hospital beds filling up they way they have through other parts of the state.

"We have systems set up with our county health department, Bayfield County and Iron County. They will

notify us if they feel there has been any sort of large exposure that we need to adjust our readiness for," she said. "They have not done that."

Hansen said there has been an increase in curbside COVID testing, and the hospital has responded by increasing the hours it conducts tests to seven days a week, from 7:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.

"We are not seeing increases in our emergency department. If we did see that type of thing, that would start telling us to be prepared for more inpatient stays," she said.

Hansen said MMC remains vigilant as other hospitals in the region are reporting very high numbers of inpatients.

"But it is not all COVID related," she said. "We are tracking what is going on in our region with available hospital beds and transport vehicles available."

MMC's first line of response to an explosive growth in COVID cases would be to open up the emergency room to larger numbers of patients, with urgent care patients being moved to other departments within the hospital. Non-emergency patients could also be directed to outside clinics under a plan that MMC has had in place since March to handle large increases in patients affected by coronavirus at the hospital.

"But we are not there yet," said MMC Director of Strategy and Patient Experience Kevin Strandberg.

As a critical care hospital, MMC has 25 beds available with areas set up so that the hospital can add more as needed.

"We have a plan we can use if all of our surge beds are full, where we would go next," Hansen said. "It's not a finite number like four or 10; it kind of depends on how sick the patient is, how much staff is available, but we have not even gotten close to utilizing all of our beds."

Hansen said while she could not say exactly how many people are hospitalized at MMC, throughout the pandemic, the number has been very low.

"Often none," she said. "We are very much under normal conditions."

Statistics issued by the State Department of Health Services say that Ashland County is currently listed as being "very high" in the number of COVID-19 cases it is dealing with.

"Our testing has increased, and the number of positive results is higher, but the patients are not requiring hospitalization. Many are reporting minor symptoms," Hanson said. "We are fortunate that way."

Tiffany, Zunker square off again

CHIPPEWA FALLS — For the second time this year, Republican Tom Tiffany will square off with Democratic candidate Tricia Zunker for the 7th Congressional District seat.

The seat became vacant in September 2019 when incumbent Sean Duffy stepped down. On May 12, Tiffany received 57% of the vote in a special election, while Zunker obtained 43% of the vote.

The candidates were each asked to answer a questionnaire about their candidacy and goals if they are elected.

Why are you the best candidate to represent the 7th Congressional District? Tell me about your qualifications and background that shows you are the best candidate.

Tiffany: I have the values and leadership, learned on the farm in Elmwood, needed to represent the 7th District. When I got into politics, I did so as a father and a small businessman concerned for my community, and I delivered on my commitments. Wisconsinites can count on me not just because of my words but because my words come with action.

Zunker: I grew up in Wausau in a strong union household. I come from generations of farmers on my mom's side and am Ho-Chunk from my dad's side. I am a first generation college graduate, then went to law school. I was elected to serve Ho-Chunk Nation on our Supreme Court in 2013 and serve in that seat currently. I am also school board president of the Wausau School District and solo parent to a young son. I am deliberate in my work and look to facts, data, expert advice and applicable law as a source of decision-making. I am responsive to constituents and listen to all sides. I am committed to working across the aisle to secure bipartisan solutions that have positive results for Wisconsin households.

Hopefully, by the time the next Congress is sworn in, a COVID-19 vaccine will exist and be approved. What measures can Congress take to help get the vaccine mass produced and available to the public?

Tiffany: Congress should provide the funding to make the vaccine available to those

who wish to take it. I believe it's important that we prioritize making the vaccine available to our front-line health care workers and employees of essential businesses.

Zunker: We need to ensure everyone has access to a vaccine. We need to have distribution centers all over the country and make sure that rural areas have equal access. We must make them accessible to people who don't have their own form of transportation as well.

What measures, if any, should be taken by Congress to address climate change/global warming?

Tiffany: Like all Wisconsinites, I value our national resources and believe we should work to manage them responsibly. We must take a common-sense approach to protect our natural resources while ensuring efforts to manage them do not negatively affect those who depend on these resources. As private citizens, we should promote energy efficiency wherever possible, and we are seeing smart consumers looking to do that organically. We should look at all sources of energy, but they should be able to stand on their own in the marketplace without taxpayer support and government interference.

Zunker: Congress has an instrumental role in addressing climate change and must act swiftly. There must be focus on moving off of fossil fuels and focus on sustainable, renewable energy sources and the good jobs they will bring to Wisconsin. Environmental impact must be considered in all legislation and there should be incentives for small businesses, farmers and households to make decisions that do not cause greater harm to the environment. Campaign finance reform is a critical part of making progress on climate change. Big Oil and the fossil fuel industry have influence in policy through their campaign contributions and it's not right.

What measures, if any, should be taken by Congress to address racial tension or improve race relations?

Tiffany: Our top priority must be maintaining law and order and keeping the peace in our communities. We must prosecute the criminals that are perpetrating the violence and destruction in our minority communities. We must also oppose efforts to defund our police departments, and focus instead on increasing funding for better police training, community policing, and equipment such as body cameras.

Zunker: Congress can take meaningful steps to improve race relations through education; encouraging all levels of government to work together to bridge racial divides; ensuring racial and economic justice with opportunity for all through policy; and reform the criminal justice system by eliminating the "school to prison pipeline."

What ideas or proposals do you have to help small businesses and farmers who have been financially impacted by COVID-19?

Tiffany: I believe the federal government should provide a hand up to our farmers and small business owners. We should provide immediate relief to our small businesses by unlocking funding for the Paycheck Protection Program, along with enacting common-sense liability protections for small businesses, schools, and health care providers.

Zunker: Small businesses who have temporarily or permanently been forced to shut down should be receiving funds to assist them during this time and their employees should receive extended unemployment benefits. Farmers that have been impacted should also receive funds to ensure they stay afloat. No one should go bankrupt or lose their home due to this pandemic, especially when it was avoidable.

What are top issues for you if you are elected?

Tiffany: My top priority will be to continue providing Wisconsin families, workers and businesses with the bridge necessary to safely get us through these tough times and back to prosperity. I'll work to lower the price of health care, increase access, and protect those with preexisting conditions. I'll continue fighting to delist the gray wolf, and fight for more free and fair trade deals for Wisconsin farmers. And to stop future generations from being saddled with this enormous federal debt, I'll roll up my sleeves to lower out-of-control spending.

Zunker: There are many needs we have here in WI-7 and I'm going to hit the ground running. First, we need to get through this pandemic and get it under control with more testing, PPE, hazard pay and extended benefits to those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. But there are many other needs to address here, including expanding access to affordable health care and making sure people with pre-existing conditions stay protected; lowering the cost of prescription drugs; helping our small and mid-size family farms; protecting the environment; ensuring rural broadband access throughout Wisconsin; and protecting and expanding Social Security.

Why should people vote for you?

Tiffany: I'm a father and a small businessman who is concerned for my community, and I deliver on my promises. I'm also the only candidate in this race with a tested, proven record of standing up for Northern Wisconsin. As a citizen legislator, I've helped pull Wisconsin out of difficult times before and I'll do it again. Wisconsinites can count on me because my words come with a record of never compromising on our shared values and always putting Wisconsin first.

Zunker: {span}I am going to work hard for the people of Wisconsin, whether you vote for me or not. I will prioritize the people here and our needs, not the demands of big corporations. I come from humble beginnings, but there were opportunities my life that I seized upon and it made all the difference. I believe one role of a representative is to make decisions that ensure opportunity for their constituents. I'm also going to bring back the amazing constituency services we had under Congressman Obey (who has endorsed me) to make sure you get the help you need timely.{/span}

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