In a small office space in a business park on Thomas Johnson Drive in Frederick, nearly half a dozen women gathered in a small circle with Rep. David Trone (D-Md.) and some staff members.
The women were all patients at Ideal Option, a treatment clinic in Frederick that helps those recovering from addiction through medical-assisted treatment. One of them, a 57-year-old from Thurmont, started coming to the clinic once every three weeks in January.
The woman—who, along with the other patients, did not want to give her name because of the stigma involving drug addiction—sustained some injuries through her work. Which led to percocets. which led to addiction issues.
Stigma, even through the coronavirus pandemic, has persisted, she said.
"People don't realize it's tough on us," she said. "We don't just wake up one day and say, 'This is what I want to do, get addicted to this or that' ... People that are so hard on addicts really need to realize it's not something they just choose to do."
Patients and Ideal Option staff told Trone during a discussion Tuesday there still remains a lot of stigma surrounding drug abuse, especially when people are prescribed medication to help them recover from addiction.
Trone was blunt about the issue of mental health and addiction, noting it has killed tens of thousands of Americans in recent years.
"I think it's the largest issue in America," he said during the discussion Tuesday. "COVID has all the headlines, but we're going to get a vaccine ... addiction, we're not going to find a vaccine for addiction."
Chloe Nichols, a nurse practitioner with Ideal Option, said during the discussion there still are some challenges to serving clients: some might have trouble connecting for telemedicine or visit due to a poor broadband connection. Others might find it difficult to get suboxone or other medication through treatment programs, based on local hospitals or pharmacies.
And then, there's a problem unique to the coronavirus pandemic: Howie Newton, communication outreach coordinator for all of Ideal Option's clinics statewide, said physical contact—handshakes, hugs and other encouraging actions between physicians and patients—is trickier or just not allowed due to the pandemic.
Nichols said that lack of human contact has an impact on everyone, but especially those in recovery.
"You can't recover alone. You need community, you need support," Nichols said. "Although telemedicine is great, I still think there's something about a face-to-face [visit], being able to give somebody a hug or handshake ... there's a quote that always strikes me ... it says 'The opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection,' and that's kind of been cut off with COVID."
That isolation was a common theme throughout much of the discussion. Telemedicine is helping to fill the void, Nichols said, but there is anxiety, from those losing their jobs to wondering how they will take care of their kids, juggling virtual learning with everyday life.
For one patient, however, that latter part is what helped push her to get clean.
"COVID is what caused me to get clean because I am going to be with my kids every single day ... I'm kind of thankful because it was the last straw for me," she said during Tuesday's discussion.
Nichols and others mentioned it's important to "normalize" discussions about mental health and addiction, in order to more fully address the issue not only in Frederick but nationwide.
"It's two things: it's the normalization of mental health stigma and addiction stigma, and that makes everybody say, 'We've got to do something," Trone said after the discussion. "But at the end of the day, it's just money."
A lot of money could be coming depending on the fate of legislation Trone has sponsored in the House, some of which is scheduled for committee hearings Wednesday. One, the 'State Opioid Response Grant Authorization Act" would allocate $1 billion nationwide annually for the next five fiscal years to states for treatment and clinics like Ideal Option. Another, the "Family Support Services for Addiction Act of 2020," would allocate another $5 million nationwide for the next six years.
The Maryland Congressional delegation recently also announced more than $50 million in grants statewide to combat the crisis.
For Nichols, however, education and understanding of addiction is also vital.
"It is difficult, but if people can see how they have their own addictions ... whether it be food or work or exercise," Nichols said. "Like, it may be more socially acceptable ... it might not be as bad, you're not overdosing or dying, but it's still the same kind of concept. You're using something to avoid something else or to numb something."