Spectrum Health Systems

As coronavirus stops AA, NA meetings, people in recovery use virtual space to support one another and prevent isolation

Published On: March 31st, 2020Categories: In The News

Date: 3/27/20

A trailer has been placed outside the Spectrum Health Systems inpatient campus in Westborough to screen incoming patients for signs of COVID-19, which may include fever and a dry cough.

While staying indoors and self-quarantining can be effective in helping to slow the spread of COVID-19, isolation can be particularly dangerous for people in recovery and those struggling with addiction, experts say.

With limits on sizes of gatherings in Massachusetts and calls from state officials and medical professionals to practice social distancing, people who utilize Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous can no longer use face-to-face meetings. Those communities are now utilizing virtual spaces to stay connected.

“This time has been really challenging because we’re not able to get in front of each other face-to-face,” said Catherine Collins, the regional business development liaison at Spectrum Health Systems and an alcoholic in recovery since 1998. “So it has been a time of not isolating in a dangerous way, but utilizing the isolation to reach out to others.”

In the midst of the pandemic, 12-step program meetings have all looked to the online space for Skype, Google Hangouts or Zoom meetings, said Collins, and phone calls are also becoming a frequently-used method to connect.

“That’s been extremely helpful,” said Collins. But, Collins doesn’t see the virtual space as quite as effective as in-person meetings, which are centered around the promise of anonymity.

“When people are on a phone line or a conference call it’s hard to know who in the background may be listening,” Collins said. “For people who are new, I think it would be a challenge for them to feel safe.”

In those cases, Collins said one-on-one phone calls can help.

The pandemic has caused some level of stress or anxiety for most people. Many people who are struggling with addiction or are in recovery have co-occurring mental health diagnoses, said Collins and Lisa Blanchard, the vice president of clinical services at Spectrum Health Systems/New England Recovery Center.

Collins said she needs to stay physically active to help avoid becoming depressed.

“It’s really important to make sure you’re treating all of that not just the addiction,” she said.

“Addiction really thrives in isolation,” Blanchard said. “If folks are using alone, the overdose risk is higher because there would be no one there to reach out for help or provide Narcan or other lifesaving measures.”

With those added risks in mind, Blanchard said Spectrum has been educating clients and making sure they’re following overdose prevention strategies.

One-on-one counseling can help, but all those services have moved to telehealth, Blanchard said.

“We still have clinicians working and engaging and reaching out to clients but in a very different way than they’re used to,” Blanchard said.

Spectrum was founded in 1969 and is based in Worcester. It’s a private, nonprofit substance use disorder and mental health treatment provider, offering including inpatient detoxification, residential rehabilitation, outpatient services, medication-assisted treatment and peer recovery support.

Inpatient programs are still running, but with the pandemic in mind. A trailer has been placed outside the campus in Westborough, which offers detoxification, clinical stabilization services and residential treatment, to screen incoming patients for signs of COVID-19, which may include fever and a dry cough.

“Our units are shared rooms, shared bathrooms, shared common spaces. It really doesn’t lend itself to isolation for anybody that’s symptomatic,” Blanchard said. “So, unfortunately, we do have to rule folks out that could be or are symptomatic but we are doing our best to admit as many folks that we can because certainly, addiction has not paused for this crisis.”

In an effort to encourage social distancing, and with flexibility on federal and state guidelines, outpatient programs have been offering some take-home medications for people with medication-assisted treatment, for example, methadone.

Usually, patients will pick up medications daily. But now, some patients are getting from 3 to 28 days worth of medicine to take home.

“We’ve had to be extremely responsive to that and keeping everyone safe,” Blanchard said. “That will keep them safe from overdose but keep both staff and patients safe from the virus.”

For people who may not have access to the internet, Collins and Blanchard recommended reading books written about recovery or journaling, especially with a focus on gratitude.

“Just because there are no face-to-face meetings, there’s all sorts of communities available,” Collins said. “This is not the time to isolate.”

Alcoholics Anonymous has listed resources to create online meetings.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, an agency in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, asks people who need help to call the Disaster Distress Helpline at 1-800-985-5990.

“People who have been through a traumatic event can experience anxiety, worry or insomnia,” said Dr. Elinore F. McCance-Katz, the assistant secretary for mental health and substance use and head of SAMHSA. “People seeking emotional help during an ongoing disaster such as a pandemic can call 1-800-985-5990 or can text ‘TalkWithUs’ to 66746 – and can find recovery and coping strategies.”

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