In December, the St. Louis region received a harsh annual update from the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse (NCADA-STL).
There were 1,080 people who died from overdoses involving opioids in 2018 alone — a new high for the region, the council reported. St. Louis is at the height of an opioid addiction epidemic with no sign of slowing.
Then, just a few months later, the region went on complete shutdown for the COVID-19 pandemic. The COVID-19 pandemic and opioid epidemic intersect in one significant way.
“We have two things that are really impacting the black community — COVID-19 and overdose deaths,” said Dr. Kanika Turner, who has served as associate medical director at the Family Care Health Center’s Carondelet location since March 2019.
However, Turner sees a great opportunity presented in this double threat, and she’s acting on it.
“If you look at the map where the COVID cases are, it’s very similar to the same map for overdose deaths,” Turner said, referring to North St. Louis County, North St. Louis City and parts of South City.
“When we look at where these disparities are, it brings a lot of questions. Where is the nearest treatment center? And if you look at the map of treatment centers and locations, there are not too many that are close enough to the high-risk areas experiencing a lot of the overdose deaths.”
Turner saw an opportunity to increase access to Narcan (naloxone), a nasal spray used for treating an opioid overdose, as part of the mass effort to increase access to testing for COVID-19. She started with her own clinic, which is a federally qualified health center (FQHC) for low-income families. She has since worked with other FQHCs, including Affinia, to get naloxone at their testing sites as well.
“People can come for COVID testing, but if they need access to naloxone at these testing sites, they’ll have access to Narcan as well,” Turner said. “I think it’s unique that we’re bridging those two.”
Turner is also helping to spread this concept among the proposed testing sites in churches, located in areas hardest-hit by the pandemic. She is working alongside Dr. Fredrick Echols, acting director of the City of St. Louis’ public health department, and the city’s clergy advisory board.
“In the black community, the church is such a strong spiritual and social support,” Turner said. “So, if they are doing testing there and they can also have naloxone available at the church, it could help destigmatize things.”
On July 9, Turner will receive the 2020 St. Louis County Children’s Service Fund John Anderson Excellence in Mental Health Award, as part of the St. Louis American Foundation’s Salute to Excellence in Health Care virtual award ceremony.
Throughout Turner’s career, she has been passionate about destigmatizing treatment for addiction, especially in the black community. At her own clinic, she is a big advocate for integrating family health medicine and addiction medicine.
“For me bringing them under one roof, it helps to establish that trust,” she said.
Substance abuse is a chronic disease, she said, and she has spent much of her career working to change the perception that it’s a “moral felony” that people need to handle on their own.
Her patients have been taking buprenorphine to treat their addictions for several years, and many of them have been able to turn their lives completely around.
This is another area where the COVID-19 pandemic has actually made it easier to treat people. Prior to the pandemic, people had to come in for their first treatment visit face-to-face with a doctor. That requirement has since been waived, and the visit can be done through telemedicine — which is a huge step in expanding access to treatment, she said.
“We’re removing some of those barriers on the health care side,” she said.
Emily Koenig, executive director of the St. Louis County Children’s Fund, said Turner’s work in the pandemic extends her previous work.
“Dr. Turner is building her career around caring for communities and working to decrease disparities that have become even more apparent as a result of this pandemic,” Koenig said. “In addition, as a young physician she is working to address the opioid epidemic by working in collaboration with the faith based community through her organization Faith Based Initiative.”
Turner grew up in North St. Louis County, graduating from the Hazelwood School District. Then she went on to earn a long line of degrees, all the way up to her medical degree, from Saint Louis University. She is now the clinical instructor at Saint Louis University School of Medicine Department of Family and Community Medicine.
She is the creator of the Faith Based Opioid Initiative working with communities of faith primarily in African-American neighborhoods in St. Louis to increase awareness of recovery, treatment, and preventive resources. During her time at Family Care Health Center, she has done numerous things to impact pregnancy-related health outcomes for minority women, including developing a primary-care model in treating pregnant women with substance use disorders.
“I made the decision I didn’t want to leave St. Louis,” she said. “I wanted to stay. With me growing up in St. Louis, I have a feel for issues and concerns of the community here. I have passion to help our community.”
The 20th Annual Salute to Excellence in Health Care Awards will be celebrated online as a free virtual event on Thursday, July 9. For additional details on how to participate, please visit www.stlamerican.com.