Addiction Recovery in the Age of Coronavirus

Organizations are tweaking their services during the COVID-19 outbreak to offer accountability and community from afar.

By Katelyn Newman, Staff WriterMarch 31, 2020, at 11:58 a.m.

Addiction Recovery Amid a Pandemic

Restrictions and social distancing during the coronavirus outbreak may make it difficult for those in recovery to access the already-limited tools at their disposal.(GETTY IMAGES)

OVER THE LAST THREE decades, Kevin Sullivan has spent much of his time helping people across the U.S. who are in the throes of addiction, connecting them to the resources they need and lending a hand to those struggling to maintain their recovery.

It’s a battle he’s familiar with himself.

“In the last 35 years, I’ve been sober 31 of them,” says Sullivan, a serial entrepreneur, sobriety coach and resident of Miami’s South Beach neighborhood. “When I was about 24 years sober, the economy went sideways in ’07 and ’08, and I took a big hit with a lot of other people. I ended up drinking … and I was out there for about four years and lost everything again.”

Since then, Sullivan has been able to maintain his recovery in part due to his regular in-person group meetings and check-ins with other people in similar situations. But as meetings are canceled and treatment centers in the U.S. enact restrictions amid the coronavirus crisis, he says both those in recovery and those seeking it are having to improvise to access the already-limited tools at their disposal.

“People are used to sitting and going to a place – like you’re going to a coffeehouse and you see the same people every morning, and now you’re not. That distance can be a little freaky for someone, particularly somebody that’s new in sobriety or new in recovery,” Sullivan says.

“Just because work’s closing, just because schools are shutting down, doesn’t mean addiction is going away,” says Patrick Kullman, executive director of the Landmark Recovery rehabilitation center in Louisville, Kentucky. “I wish there was a way we could put a halt on addiction until this was over, and then pick it back up later if need be, but those aren’t the options.

Kullman, in recovery for his own heroin use, says it’s the scariest time for someone with an opioid addiction to relapse, due to the vast amount of health care resources deployed to combat the coronavirus. He’s heard equal shares of fear and anxiety among others working to overcome addiction.

To help them, support groups, treatment centers and organizations across the U.S. are adjusting their services to offer accountability and community from afar. Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous, among other groups, have boosted their online presence, hosting live video meetings to provide thousands of people the means to attend through a computer or phone screen rather than in person. Treatment centers have extended their telehealth offerings for patients, promoting their service changes on social media and on their websites.

The federal government, meanwhile, has enabled registered health care providers to issue prescriptions using telemedicine and without requiring an in-person medical evaluation.

“Addiction didn’t stop just because the coronavirus kicked up in full gear – it’s still here, and so is recovery,” Kullman says.

Dr. Hannah Snyder, a primary care and addiction medicine specialist at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital, said during a recent webinar that health care providers need to increase support for addiction patients during the coronavirus crisis while decreasing in-person contact. That could mean cutting back on office visits for medication refills, providing safe-consumption supplies such as fentanyl test strips or the overdose-reversal drug naloxone, or temporarily bypassing urine drug screenings.

“We need to continue our focus not just on evidence-based medication for opioid use disorder, but also on harm reduction, and really make sure that our patients are able to be as safe as possible, both from COVID and from sequelae of substance use disorders,” said Snyder, also a co-principal investigator for the California Bridge Program, an initiative working toward the 24/7 provision of quality care to people with substance use disorders across the state’s health systems.

Snyder pointed to the government’s loosened prescription rules as a helpful step that’s enabled her to increase prescriptions for buprenorphine, a medication used to treat opioid dependency, to a longer supply for select patients. “In order to do social distancing, and in order to protect our patients who may be in quarantine or isolated, one of the hallmarks of our care needs to be longer prescriptions than we’re used to,” Snyder said.

In Louisville, Kullman says the recovery center where he works procured a number of iPads for in-house patients and extended their allotted phone time so residents can keep in touch with their loved ones at a time when in-person meetings are barred because of the virus.

“We refer to their loved ones as their support system,” Kullman says. “They get 30 minutes extra time, moments with their loved ones, and they get extra phone calls throughout the week to make sure they’re checking in on their support system.”

Christian Hailozian – a substance use navigator for Highland Hospital in Oakland, California – connects patients with addiction to the resources they need, from financial counseling and primary care to medication-assisted treatment and mental health services. He says his team has switched to over-the-phone consultations as well as prescription-delivery services for patients, especially for those who are more at risk of severe illness from the coronavirus, such as those who are older or who have other serious health conditions.

“We have an extremely challenged patient population, and we have much higher traffic and volume at Highland than anywhere else, so we’re equipped to do that stuff,” says Hailozian, who also works with the California Bridge Program. “But these are the general protocols – anything that we’re establishing to just reduce the amount of risk that our patients have and whatnot.”

Hailozian says staff have informed patients that unless they absolutely need to come in, they don’t have to. But “if you really need to be seen – like you are really struggling or you need your monthlong injection (of recovery medication) – that’s appropriate to come in.”

“We are all trying our best here. I think there’s going to be things that we try and implement here that are going to be extraordinarily successful and will quite possibly change addiction medicine, and there are some things that might just fail miserably and we’ll never do it again,” Hailozian says.

“But we have to try everything just to reduce the amount of harm, make sure our patients at least can be somewhat safe and get through this time, and really try not to overwhelm the hospital system with patients” spreading infectious diseases including and beyond COVID-19, such as HIV or hepatitis C.

On an individual level, Sullivan of Miami says he continues to offer help in any way he can, distributing food and supplies and taking the occasional stroll to meeting spots to help those who may be looking for someone to talk to, even if from 6 feet away.

“I go sit with them and find a way so that they can get access to the recovery that we’re doing, and then sometimes I’ll just get on the scooter and ride around … and wait for the guys to show up because they don’t know” a meeting was canceled, he says.

“Life just knocks you out of your shoes here and there sometimes, for a lot of different reasons,” Sullivan says.

This article originally appeared in US News.

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