Madison Moilanen came to St. Cloud from Duluth last year – in the midst of the pandemic – for a good start.

She didn’t know anyone here.

Moilanen had tried to get sober in Duluth. But that didn’t last because she was coming back to the same environment and expecting different results, she told the St. Cloud Times last week.

In St. Cloud, she found success and sobriety after years of heroin and methamphetamine use.

But for many people with substance use disorders, the pandemic and the shutdown that followed resulted in isolation and a return to addiction.

Overdose deaths increased 27% in Minnesota from 2019 to 2020, according to a Department of Health analysis released in early May. And that number does not include all of the people who were sober and resumed using and others who developed a substance use disorder due to the many stresses inherent in the pandemic.

RELATED: Minnesota drug overdose deaths increased 27% from 2019 to 2020

“ It only got worse during the pandemic ”

“What people forget is that the level was appallingly high before the pandemic. And it only got worse during the pandemic, ”said Major John Donovan, co-founder and director of the Recovery Community Network in St. Cloud, of overdose deaths.

Moilanen is grateful to have been hospitalized during part of the pandemic. And since then, she’s tapped into the Recovery Community Network to become a peer-to-peer recovery specialist and help others find out what will keep them clean.

“I’m telling you, if I can do it, anyone can do it,” Moilanen said.

She remembers looking up at a correctional officer when she was incarcerated and thinking she would never be normal again. Now she has a driver’s license, two jobs and time with her beloved 7 year old daughter.

Last year, Donovan saw people leave the recovery program. Some have returned, some have not, he said.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘I was doing really well when I could go to my meetings. And then the community closed its doors. And we had to stay away. And the places were closed. And I haven’t had any contact with my recovering friends. And I started to use again. I reused. I relapsed, ”Donovan said. “I have heard this story over and over and over again.”

Like many organizations, the Recovery Community Network has pivoted into the pandemic to provide online services – virtual meetings and outreach. But Zoom meetings lack the energy and connection that occurs during in-person support groups.

RELATED: Coronavirus and Isolation: Addiction Recovery Services Goes Online

It was also more difficult for people to access treatment services as they were limited and not in person. And some people did not have access to the technology needed for these meetings, said Wendy Jones, executive director of the Minnesota Recovery Connection in St. Paul.

Overall, the situation for clients has been more dire during the pandemic due to the stress of housing insecurity and the loss of loved ones, Jones said. “The situations conducive to the development of a substance use disorder, such as isolation, trauma, financial hardship, all of these things were exacerbated during COVID-19.”

And getting over that setback will take time, Jones said. There is a consensus among recovery organizations and treatment providers that this is just the start.

“In fact, we’ve only seen the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “It’s been a really traumatic year and a half.”

Lots of help and hope for a cure

Despite all the challenges, there is a lot of help and a lot of hope.

“Recovery is possible and probable for the people who have the right support,” Jones said. Standardization of substance use disorders and expansion of services would be helpful.

Donovan is convinced that communities can recover the ground lost during the pandemic. Famous people talk about their own addictions and recovery, like Robert Downey Jr., and network TV shows feature characters in recovery.

In addition, more and more people are recovering. Moilanen can attest to this.

“If there’s anything that’s true about addicts, it’s that once we’ve found a cure, we’re resilient,” Moilanen said. “If we can get over that, we can get over just about anything.”

Nora Hertel is the government watch reporter for the St. Cloud Times. Contact her at 320-255-8746 or Follow her on Twitter @nghertel.

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