Think you’re isolated during the pandemic? Just ask an addict

a syringe lying next to a dead man's outstretched hand
a syringe lying next to a dead man's outstretched arm.
Photo: Shutterstock

By Noreen Marcus,

As healthy Americans struggle with social isolation in a pandemic, the Rev. Nathaniel Wilcox reminds them that for drug addicts, isolation is a way of life.

“You see about 10, 15 people sleeping in boxes. They’re already going through a health crisis, so a coronavirus situation with shortness of breath, they’re already experiencing that anyway,” said Wilcox, assistant pastor at Apostolic Revival Center in Miami’s Liberty City neighborhood. He’s also executive director of the civil rights group PULSE (People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality).

“When it comes to people with drug addiction, they’re always allowed to suffer silently and the community don’t make a whole bunch of noise about it,” Wilcox said. As a result, “there will be situations with people on drugs around Overtown and Liberty City who will be exposed to the virus and won’t be as eager to go in and get checked. They have their own issues. They pretty much keep to themselves.”

Nathaniel Wilcox, executive director of non-profit People United to Lead the Struggle for Equality, or P.U.L.S.E.

The longstanding menace of drug addiction can’t compete for attention or dollars with the new public health crisis of historic proportions. That’s obvious to Wilcox and his ally John Schmidt, a reformed heroin addict who wants to open a residential drug treatment facility in Miami-Dade County.

“The bulk of the people who we have up there are going to do the best they can to tap-dance around this issue, look after themselves,” Schmidt said, referring to county politicians. “So many people have died that there’s no excuse for a place as wealthy as Miami to have the degree of suffering we have, with no hope in sight.” 

An ex-addict with a dream

His dream has a name: Marvin’s Corner, to honor a wealthy New Yorker who befriended Schmidt, 64, when he was a young man adrift on drugs. He envisions a center like the nonprofit Delancey Street Foundation in San Francisco, where Schmidt got clean more than 30 years ago.

South Florida’s need for a similar treatment center has never been greater, experts say.

“The [opioid] epidemic continues, but has stabilized and stopped escalating, though consequences such as death are still at the highest levels,” said James N. Hall, an epidemiologist with Nova Southeastern University in Davie. 

The opioid numbers have “plateaued,” as scientists say, but it’s a very high plateau, more like a mountaintop. The number of deaths related to heroin, for example, increased sharply from 57 in 2011 to an estimated 1,096 in 2017, according to a 2018 report of the National Drug Early Warning System, the most recent available. In South Florida (Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties), heroin fatalities rose from 30 in 2011 to an estimated 524 in 2017, the report said.

John Schmidt, founder of the nonprofit addiction services company Marvin’s Corner

And that’s just one drug. Addicts tend to take various drugs and die with multiple traces in their bodies. In scientific lingo, most of the 2017 heroin deaths in Florida “involved at least one or more other drugs detected in the decedents, demonstrating the polysubstance abuse patterns of the opioid epidemic.”

‘Significant threats’

Hall, a contributor to the 2018 report, said recently, “there are still dramatic risks that remain significant threats.” He said synthetic new fentanyl and other opioid-type drugs from foreign cartel labs are starting to infiltrate the U.S., and they are “the most deadly of all the opioids out there.”

Subsidized and for-profit drug rehab programs are available in Miami and elsewhere. Hall argued they enhance residential treatment, but do not supplant it.

Residential programs for opioid-use disorders “provide a holistic approach, addressing social, medical and economic needs of participants to sustain an active and lasting recovery,” he said. Ideally they’re followed by outpatient treatment and support groups that reinforce the work done in-house.

When the death toll from drugs spiked noticeably around 2015-2016, Miami-Dade County leaders briefly encouraged Schmidt’s long-term goal. He seemed to be getting some traction with the idea he’d been pushing since 2008: repurpose an unused, county-owned building to finally create Marvin’s Corner.

‘Destiny is on the line’

But it never happened. Miami-Dade Commissioner Audrey Edmonson suggested an empty building in Liberty City that had been earmarked for disaster victims. The Miami-Dade Services Department wanted $7,000-per-month rent, making it unaffordable, Schmidt said.

During the time the county took his idea seriously, his emotions seesawed between hope and disappointment. “I felt like a junkie trying to cop dope in a city he isn’t familiar with,” Schmidt said. “There’s no legitimate or ethical reason why we couldn’t create a therapeutic community.”

“It’s even more scary now,” he said. Among addicts COVID-19 disease will spread from one to another “and one of them is going to give their sister a kiss on the cheek. There are so many ways that disease is given to other people innocently. Just a little bit of saliva is all it takes for this new kind of death.”

Both Wilcox and Schmidt have had serious medical setbacks recently. Still, Wilcox talked about them working together on a better treatment center plan. “It’s an ongoing press, you have to do as much as you can with your health and everything else you’re dealing with,” he said.

“You can’t give up. There are too many people on the line, destiny is on the line,” Wilcox said. “We will pretty much do it until we can’t do it anymore.”

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