HAZLETON, Pa. — Looking back on 2021, COVID-19 dominated the headlines.
But there was an epidemic that was getting worse at the same time: opioid abuse. And addiction treatment centers worry it's an issue that's not getting the attention it deserves.
"Everything is COVID, COVID, COVID, and we need to be focusing on other issues too, and we should be hearing about opioids, fentanyl, just as much," said Eileen Panzarella, the Director of Prevention & Education at Pathway to Recovery in Hazleton.
Panzarella has worked at the agency for 32 years. During that time, she's seen flashes of hope.
"We had a high amount in 2018. 2019 - we saw that number drop, and we thought, OK, we're getting a handle on this."
But in 2020, the relapses started. People lost their support systems, and felt isolated and afraid. Drug dealers started taking advantage.
"And now we're finding fentanyl in everything. They're mixing fentanyl in methamphetamine, it's even in marijuana that people are buying on the street," said Panzarella.
Panzarella says fentanyl accounts for the majority of overdoses. And more and more young people, even high schoolers, are getting their hands on it without even realizing what they're taking.
"They don't realize that fentanyl is out there. They're buying marijuana and it's laced with fentanyl, and they have no clue," said Panzarella.
Between 2020 and 2021, fentanyl became the leading cause of death among 18 to 45 year olds.
Panzarella believes the pandemic helped push that number up.
"The isolation, especially in 2020, when systems just kind of shut down, and we didn't know how to handle COVID, so all the support systems just kind of shut down. We were open the whole time, but people didn't want to come in. They were scared," added Panzarella.
The hope is that something similar doesn't happen again, now that coronavirus cases are on the rise.