Year in Review: Community members discuss 2021 health concerns

Bayla Ostrach and JP Kennedy
HOW TO SAVE A LIFE: Musicians for Overdose Prevention board members Bayla Ostrach, left, and JP Kennedy want to make naloxone, the overdose-reversal drug, accessible in Asheville. Photo courtesy of MOP

For nearly two years, the COVID-19 pandemic has been at the forefront of many Western North Carolina conversations about health. The region may at times feel beautifully isolated from the rest of the world by its mountains, but the prevalence of coronavirus and its impact on people’s lives have continued to demonstrate WNC’s global interconnectedness.

2021 saw most people, including children age 5 and older, become eligible for COVID-19 vaccination. Some were eager for these shots; others refused while challenging other pandemic measures. Businesses grappled with reactions from both customers and employees to vaccine and mask mandates, and some municipalities and schools developed incentives to encourage vaccination. Area hospitals began offering monoclonal antibody infusions to lessen the severity of the illness among those infected. The arrival of the delta and omicron variants continued to pressure mental health and mental health care providers.

While COVID-19 may have dominated WNC’s psyche in 2021, it was by no means the only health and wellness story Xpress told. Buncombe County continued to face opioid abuse head- on, and everyone from health care providers to musicians sought to address the problem in their own ways. Also this year, Buncombe County Emergency Services and several other agencies debuted a post-overdose response team program designed to connect opioid users with harm-reduction strategies and other services.

The year saw the closure of the WNC Birth Center, leaving Asheville without a 24/7 midwifery option. And a bit further north, the Outland Family Clinic opened its doors at a church in Mars Hill to provide free health care to anyone in need.

For a fuller picture of life in wellness this year, Xpress solicited reflections from people in various Buncombe County fields. Not surprisingly, COVID-19, opioid abuse, mental health and self-care came up a lot. 

How has COVID-19 impacted your field?

“As we have gone through the COVID-19 pandemic, I have seen many people in the emergency services field, including myself, struggle with finding a balance between caring for their communities by providing the lifesaving services desperately needed and caring for themselves, as well as their own families. I find myself still trying to problem-solve solutions to the issues our department and community face, even during my own personal free time.” — Taylor Jones, Emergency Services director, Buncombe County

“Like the year before, 2021 has been incredibly challenging for healthcare providers as we continue to help our communities navigate the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it’s been tough, I’ve never been prouder to be a healthcare provider, and I’ve never felt closer to my colleagues and fellow community members. Time and time again, we have risen to the occasion to support each other. In the process, we’ve learned to become more innovative and resilient as an industry and as a nation. I’m more committed than ever to practice medicine and serve my community so we can all thrive.” — Dr. Blake Fagan, incoming chair, Mountain Area Health Education Center Department of Family Medicine

“All over the country, we are experiencing a shortage of paramedics and people interested in pursuing careers in public safety. Until we can more effectively recruit, train, hire and retain people from a diversity of backgrounds and life experiences to stay and grow in these roles, we will continue to experience these large-scale shortages. Not only do staffing shortages in emergency medical care negatively impact patient care, but they effect the well-being and resiliency of our providers due to burnout, overload and the cumulative effects of trauma without time to properly address it.” — Claire Hubbard, community paramedic program manager, Buncombe County

What concerned you about the impact of opioids in 2021? 

“I was caught a bit off guard when I saw the overdose death statistics this past April. The rate has increased 29% over the previous year. More people are dying in 2021 from an opioid-related overdose than they were before the pandemic. In fact, in 2018, we actually saw a 5% decrease in accidental overdoses. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, however, as substance use disorders thrive in isolation, and isolation is something many of us have experienced during the pandemic. It’s an important reminder that community and social support networks are powerful medicine for well-being.” — Dr. Blake Fagan 

“Over 100,000 people died from overdose in 2021, the most in any year. The underlying issues of poverty, mental health, trauma and generational trauma continue. Anxiety and depression have increased, and people self-medicate. With fentanyl, which is in so many drugs now, overdose is rampant. Everyone I know has someone in their family or their close friend group who is facing this issue. And nothing changes. The ordinary person loses. Big Pharma wins. Big Pharma made billions on the overprescription of opioids and is now making billions on naloxone.” — JP Kennedy, co-founder, Musicians for Overdose Prevention

What is one way that your well-being suffered in 2021?

“Probably self-care. While I am fully aware how important it is to take care of myself, I usually sacrifice or put others before me and my needs. I’m working on this, though. I know better; I just have to do better.” — Keynon Lake, executive director, My Daddy Taught Me That

“I miss being around people and traveling with ease. I have a 4-year-old who won’t be able to get vaccinated until next year and I am never quite certain it is a good idea to make travel plans to take her places — not only for her health, but also for the health and well-being of the people we are visiting or traveling with. That inability to plan ahead and know for certain we can see friends and family seems like a new way of life.” — Shannon Cornelius,  health justice program director, Pisgah Legal Services

What is something in 2021 has made you feel optimistic about 2022? 

“The different rapid responses to the pandemic to help the community and to offer resources directly to where they are needed the most. For example, BeLoved Asheville has helped to vaccinate hundreds of people by holding vaccination events directly in mobile home communities, under bridges, in restaurants, in the bus station and in camps where homeless people live, making sure everyone had access to the vaccine.” – Ponkho Bermejo, co-director, BeLoved Asheville

“As the executive director of the nonprofit Center for Native Health it has been extremely rewarding to build a strong organizational foundation to impact Indigenous communities in positive ways alongside partners like Dogwood Health Trust.” — Trey Adcock, executive director, Center for Native Health

“Things are changing — at least in the music scene. It’s been tough with the pandemic and no live shows. But musicians are talking with each other about mental health, overdose, checking in with each other, carrying naloxone, looking after each other. If this is all going to get better, feel safer, more secure,  this is the way it happens — with small acts of kindness. If a bunch of punks with bad attitudes can look after each other, we all can.” — JP Kennedy 

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