Addiction Treatment Centers Struggle To Serve Patients As Coronavirus Spreads

Erica C. Barnett
(FollowTheFlow via Getty Images)

SEATTLE ― The spread of COVID-19 has presented a unique challenge to those fighting another life-threatening epidemic: substance use disorders, which affect about 20 million American adults each year. Residential treatment centers, which are based on a model of group therapy and interaction among patients, are scrambling to adapt to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines.  

Those treatment centers are also facing a more existential threat: As potential patients stay away for fear of contracting the coronavirus, many smaller and publicly funded centers could run out of money and close their doors at a time when social isolation is driving many people with addictions to relapse.

“Historically, whenever there’s a crisis in the U.S., alcohol sales and illicit drug sales increase dramatically,” said Dr. Marvin Seppala, the chief medical officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation in Beaverton, Oregon. “Day-to-day things are suddenly stressful .... In the long run, there’s going to be an increased need for treatment.”  

Treatment centers are considered “essential critical infrastructure” under the federal guidelines that most states are using to determine which services are exempt from requirements to shelter in place. But in order to keep people safe, they’re being forced to adapt in ways that go against normal methods of treatment, forgoing things like group meetings, family visits and open-door policies.

Melody McKee, who until last week was the clinical program director for Olalla Recovery Services in Olalla, Washington, said her treatment center made “the difficult decision” to implement a triage system for admissions. 

“The way it will work is, like, ‘Is this person literally not going to make it if they do not enter this location?’” said McKee.

A person experiencing homelessness with no ability to access tele-health would rank high on the triage list, as would someone leaving detox who seems...

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