PORTLAND, Ore. (KOIN) — Tony Vezina said he started using drugs when he was about 10 and he kept using drugs until he was 27.

“About 7 years of that I was using IV heroin after, you know, the oxycontin ran out in the Portland- Vancouver area because the doctor got busted for overprescribing,” he told KOIN 6 News. “I was homeless and using IV heroin for about 3 years.”

Now Vezina is the Executive Director and co-founder of 4D Recovery, with locations in Portland and Hillsboro and, soon, Gresham. He knows the struggles addicts have and the pressures the pandemic puts on people struggling in their drug battle.

Tony Vezina’s mug shots through the years, which he provided on December 29, 2020

“I’m glad I got the opportunity to get into recovery and there was people to support me,” he said.

Drug overdose deaths have jumped 40% in Oregon this year, according to the state health authority.

The 580 fatal drug overdoses reported are part of deadly pattern: there were 81,000 drug moralities nationwide in 2020 — with many of these deaths of despair linked to the loneliness and uncertainty triggered by the novel coronavirus.

“There’s been a lot of tragedy in the recovery community since the pandemic started,” Vezina said. “The best analogy or kind of phrase I could come up with — recovery and COVID are very different. COVID thrives when people are around each other hanging out. But addiction thrives when people are in insolation.”

With everyone isolating, addictions are thriving — which leads to “all the despair that happens, economic disparity and stuff,” he said.

Fentanyl test strips are given out at the Multnomah County Syringe Exchange Site, where they’ve also ramped up Naloxone distribution.

Multnomah County Syringe Exchange Program

“Our harm reduction programs are really geared towards reaching out to people and creating a bridge so that they can create safety in where they’re at currently, and we’ve been operating that throughout the pandemic,” said Multnomah County Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey.

“We also work quite a bit on making sure folks have access to medically-supported treatment if they so choose, like buprenorphine — one of the drugs that’s used for medically assisted treatment — which can be done through Telehealth,” she said.

Vezina said he “was looking over some reports from the CDC today that came out on December 17 and it looks like there was an uptick in overdoses before the pandemic even hit, and a lot of it’s been caused by fentanyl. But there’s also been upticks in overdoses in psychostimulants like cocaine and methamphetamines, so that was all happening before the pandemic — and then the pandemic has exacerbated it.”

4D Recovery has about 60 people drop in each day at each location and they serve about 100 young people each month in peer support services. They still have in-person meetings but with fewer people due to COVID rules, and they follow safety protocols in the building. Peer recovery mentors are still serving people.

And Vezina knows the value of in-person support.

“We know people are stuck at home, so doing outreach and engaging people and supporting them has been difficult because systems have been fragmented and relationships between treatment and recovery providers and stuff has been disrupted,” he told KOIN 6 News. “The continuum of care in the ecology of services, including community-based services, isn’t operating like it should and so people just fall through the cracks.”

People in recovery, going to meetings and getting positive reinforcement daily on their road to recovery has been destroyed, he said.

“That’s a big problem because people might go to treatment and stuff — like me — but then they need to go and do recovery stuff for the rest of their life. I just got back from a meeting today, right before we got on here, I went to a meeting and listened and stuff — and I’m almost a decade in.”

The inability for people to just get together and hang out makes recovery really hard, he said. People trying to straighten out want to be able to be with others “who understand what they’re going through, and can help them from using when they want to use.”

When Vezina decided to get clean, he made a commitment to honor his mother, who died from heroin-related causes.

“I just try and use that energy to try and help the community a little bit more.”

Tony Vezina in a recent photo, provided on December 29, 2020

Despite the challenges, Vezina said there is still a lot of good work being done.

“We just need to hold on a little bit longer,” he said. “It looks like 6 months from now we’ll be doing good.”

Vezina said people who need help can go see them. “We can help you and there’s other good recovery agencies.”

But he and the team at 4D Recovery plan to be there for everyone who needs it.

“For the people who are in recovery or just started their recovery, you know, I would just say it’s our responsibility to build recovery back. That’s what we have to do. We have to build it back.”