The other pandemic

During COVID-19, the opioid epidemic and struggles with addiction continue to end lives. Two Northeast Philadelphia residents are working to end stigma and get people the help they need.

Doug Schmalen (left) and Doug Kiker, creators of RetroFit Careers, now Ecovery Careers. TIMES FILE PHOTO

Everyone has been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic that put the country on lockdown nearly 11 months ago, but not everyone has been affected by the “other pandemic,” said the owners of Retrofit Careers LLC.

They’re referring to an increase of drug and alcohol use, overdose and relapse during the pandemic that has shut many people in their homes. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a study showing there were 81,230 drug overdose deaths nationwide from May 2019 to May 2020, the largest number in a 12-month period ever recorded. There was a spike of overdose deaths starting in March 2020, coinciding with the first shutdown orders.

Meanwhile, online earnings for wine and liquor in Pennsylvania were up 436.9 percent in dollar sales and 851.9 percent in unit sales over the previous year, attributable to the COVID pandemic.

Many people are facing difficulty finding or keeping a job during the pandemic, a task that was already difficult for individuals in recovery. RetroFit Careers, a job board that curates postings specifically for individuals in recovery, has continued to seek out these jobs during shutdown.

“The pandemic has made it even more challenging,” said RetroFit Careers LLC owner Dan Schmalen.

Schmalen and co-owner Doug Kiker, both Northeast Philadelphia residents, recently rebranded to Ecovery Careers for a more recognizable name. But the mission remains unchanged: help people get jobs to help them remain sober.

The mission could be made easier if people started perceiving addiction as a disease rather than a controllable choice, Schmalen said.

“People just don’t realize that,” he said.

To help combat the stigma and provide aid to those in need, Schmalen and Kiker are offering a product called Acceptance. Currently available electronically, it’s a guide that helps the user find life-seeking help and ongoing treatment options, available for $4.99.

The goal is to get the product physically available in convenience stores and pharmacies, packaged in a small box and offered on shelves beside other ailment helpers, like headache medicine or cough drops.

The name doubles as a play to help the public become more accepting of addiction as a disease that can be treated like being sick, and also to help the individual recognize their own problem. Only 10 percent of people with an addiction receive treatment, possibly because of the stigma surrounding it, lack of self-recognition or lack of knowing where to go for help.

It’s a product that Schmalen could have used during his own struggles with alcoholism.

“Until I recognized my disease of alcoholism, I didn’t know where to go and I didn’t know how to stop,” Schmalen said. ••

To find the job board, visit EcoveryCareers.com. To learn more about Acceptance, visit AcceptRecovery.com.