(FOX 9) - When Joseph Lee took over the leadership of the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in 2021, he knew people battling addiction were hurting.
"Well, the biggest challenge coming in, I knew, was the pandemic," said Lee.
The isolation many people faced during the COVID-19 pandemic was a perfect storm for those battling addiction and even those in recovery.
"Not only have deaths gone up, you know, a lot of people who come in for help are much sicker than they were before," explained Lee.
The pandemic marked an inflection point for Hazelden Betty Ford, too.
First, it brought in new leadership. Lee, a long time medical director for Hazelden’s youth services, became the first medical doctor and person of color to lead Hazelden Betty Ford.
Second, the organization built out more online options for recovery in a portal called Recovery Go. The Recovery Go program allowed patients to connect with Hazelden who otherwise might not have sought treatment because of travel distance barriers.
But two years into the pandemic, addiction counselors have seen a dramatic change in population struggling with addiction.
"You see a lot of disadvantaged, underserved communities," said Lee. "Minority populations now are having a disproportionate increase in the number of deaths from opioids and other substance use disorders, whereas ten years ago much of this problem was in the suburbs, especially with opioids."
The latest data from the CDC this week shines a bright light on the tragedy. In an examination of state death reports from across the country, the CDC found drug overdose deaths in 2020 rose 30%.
But the report also exposed the widening disparities brought on by the pandemic. Deaths among Blacks jumped 44%, and overdose deaths among American Indian and Alaskan Indians jumped 39%.
Dr. Lee says Hazelden Betty Ford has been reaching to organizations in both communities.
"You know, a lot of people don’t know for example, that we are a partner with somewhere between 50 and 60 Native American communities across the country. But we can do more. We can do a lot better," said Lee.
Part of the outreach is encouraging people to seek help.
"I want to tell people who are struggling out there that that we see you," pleaded Lee. "You are not alone."
To learn more, you can visit Hazelden’s website HERE.
There is also a community based organization in north Minneapolis called Turning Point. You can learn more at HERE.