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Coronavirus presents new challenges for drug and alcohol addiction recovery

Americans recovering from drug and alcohol addiction are faced with a new set of challenges as the novel coronavirus pandemic now requires social distancing to slow the spread of the virus.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration’s most recent 2018 survey results, more than 20 million people needed substance use treatment in the U.S.

Fox News spoke with Lisa Blanchard, vice president of clinical services at Spectrum Health, a substance abuse and mental health treatment provider in New England. Spectrum’s services include inpatient detoxification, residential rehabilitation, outpatient services, medication-assisted treatment and peer recovery support for clients with drug and alcohol addiction.

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Blanchard said that while the inpatient facilities are not quite at capacity, they aren’t too far off, and the staff is doing their best not to turn anyone away.

COVID-19 screening questions have been implemented across the board for clients. She said that at Spectrum’s largest inpatient facility in Westborough, Mass., patients are screened for coronavirus symptoms, and have their temperatures taken in an office trailer outside of the facility since the residents inside live in shared spaces. So far, Blanchard said, no inpatient has tested positive for COVID-19.

New England Recovery Center, part of Spectrum Health

New England Recovery Center, part of Spectrum Health
(Contributed photo)

“Patients with already compromised lung conditions may be at higher risk for more severe complications from COVID-19,” the director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse said in a statement on Thursday. “Specifically, people who smoke or vape, or use opioids or methamphetamine may face heightened risk”

“The opioid epidemic has not stopped,” Blanchard said. “We’re committed to doing as much as we can to still take care of individuals who are looking for recovery throughout this period.”

Outpatient recovery services have also had to accommodate social distancing and new safety practices.

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“Methadone is one of the most regulated treatments,” Blanchard explained.

Prior to the spread of the virus, patients were required to come in daily to receive their methadone in an observed setting.

“We do have some individuals who are in long term, sustained recovery, guided by federal and more stringent state guidelines,” Blanchard said, and for those clients, federal and state regulation has recently loosened, to allow for distribution of take-home medication during the crisis.

She estimated that about 50 percent of their methadone patients are now able to take some amount home with them, depending on their individual history. The amount can vary from a few days at a time, to a week, and up to 28 days of medication, according to Blanchard.

“We’ve adjusted the hours when folks can come in, and we’re only allowing so many people in at a time so they aren’t congregating in lines when they come in to pick up medication,” Blanchard said.

Spectrum is also offering telehealth counseling services for those in recovery, “to build recovery skills, and manage occurring mental health challenges.” All patients, she said, are having a difficult time being isolated.

One piece of good news from Blanchard, when it comes to telehealth video or phone sessions for patients: “we’ve had a 100 percent show rate, everyone is home.”

Telehealth appointments are not the only way Americans are finding addiction services and support online. Cathy Collins, of Massachusetts, spoke with Fox News about her recovery from alcohol addiction, and how her 22 years of sobriety continues in the era of coronavirus social distancing.

Cathy Collins was attending five to seven A.A. meetings a week before the coronavirus swept through the nation. 

Cathy Collins was attending five to seven A.A. meetings a week before the coronavirus swept through the nation. 
(Contributed photo )

Prior to the global pandemic, Collins was attending five to seven Alcoholics Anonymous (A.A.) meetings a week and said getting sober was “the best thing I’ve ever done in my life.”

Now, she’s participating in about four virtual meetings a week using Zoom video calls, and “seeing the faces of the same people I’ve been in recovery with, it’s really beneficial,” Collins said. “These are my people.”

“Technology has been amazing for the recovery community – without it, what would we do? We’d be isolated,” she continued. “And, isolated is a tragic place to be during recovery.”

Collins does have one concern, however, about bringing the A.A. community online. She has been hearing about online meetings being hacked by bad actors, and the Boston-area FBI issued warning about it.

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“It’s very frightening, anonymity is the one thing that allows us to really say our truth, and to think that people are betraying that,” she said. “I worry about the newcomer.”

Her advice for those feeling vulnerable? Call another A.A. member one-on-one.

“We can help each other that way,” Collins explained.

Fox News spoke with a Washington, D.C.-area freelance cameraman on the condition of anonymity, two years sober and grateful for his A.A. community.

“To me, the program is not so much about not drinking, because I don’t have any desire to drink anymore, but the big thing you want to think about is trying to live life on life’s terms,” he explained. “I’m happier when I realize that I’m not in control and I’m going to do the best I can.”

Now, in stressful situations, instead of turning to drinking or spiraling anxiety, he said he recites the serenity prayer, and reminds himself of all that he has to be grateful for: a large loving family, food on the table, and the ability to walk around without pain.

“It’s so hard for people now, they’re missing the face-to-face. The Zoom thing is amazing,” the cameraman said. “COVID has taken away a lot of the interaction. A lot of middle-aged men and women who live alone, they are the ones who are really struggling right now,” he explained. “Some say they didn’t realize how much they missed getting hugs from their friends, that’s the only touch they get.”

As for himself, he said he wasn’t nervous when the spread of coronavirus started moving meetings online. He feels grateful for the “the rooms”, whether in person or virtual, because without it he said addicts tend to isolate.

“I was in a Zoom men’s meeting last night and two of the 18 people admitted to slipping or as we say “going back out,” the cameraman shared.

“These are tough times and it makes me realize how important taking care of others is to my spiritual well being. Our meetings are at the heart of the program because that is where we see how we fit in the world and learn to care for each other, and that to me is what makes meetings work when other psychiatrists like Carl Jung haven’t been able to figure out how to help alcoholics.”

Al-Anon is an organization for individuals with loved ones addicted to alcohol, and the program uses the same tools and methods as A.A., to support the journey of the family member or friend.

“In the program, there’s something called a qualifier – the person that sends you into the program,” Felice S., a New York City-area member of Al-Anon, told Fox News. “I had been engaged to someone who was a user, and that’s what got me into the program. Then, when I learned more about the program, it turns out that I’ve had other qualifiers in my life. Right now, the coronavirus is the qualifier, the thing you want to fix, the thing you want to control.”

Felice said that she and others use the skills learned in Al-Anon to deal with the fear and uncertainty of everyday life, and that particularly applies during the coronavirus pandemic. Even her 14-year-old son reminds her of the lessons she’s passed on to him, and for that, she is grateful.

Felice said that when her usual in-person meetings closed down, she and a group of women took to the web to use Zoom.

“We say the serenity prayer, we say the 12 steps,” she shared. “It’s centering and grounding, it’s really nice to see each others’ faces, it makes a huge difference.”

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The same sentiment was repeated by each member of a recovery program interviewed by Fox News: reach out, get help, don’t let social distancing create isolation.

“It’s ironic,” Felice said, “within a program of anonymity, the human connection is there, there’s a psychological component that is so important.”



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