- Written by Maile Shoul, Project Manager, Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region
- Published: 01 May 2020
Over the past few months, the COVID-19 pandemic has curtailed nearly every aspect of our lives, from grocery shopping to visiting family members. Due to social distancing guidelines, many of us are spending more time at home than ever before, cut off from almost all in-person interaction. This can be especially difficult for people who are struggling with substance use disorders (the medical term for drug or alcohol addiction) and are currently seeking treatment and recovery services.
President Trump declared the opioid epidemic to be a national emergency in 2017; while the federal government spent over $7 billion on combating the opioid epidemic in 2018, advocates say that this funding has not been enough. Preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention show that over 69,000 people died in the United States from drug overdose in 2019. Nearly seven out of ten of these deaths were due to opioid misuse.
Our rural region is now experiencing two widespread public health crises at the same time. The coronavirus crisis has made it more difficult to access treatment and recovery services for substance-use disorders and the social distancing that helps to protect us from COVID-19 can make us more vulnerable to isolation and depression, which can exacerbate substance misuse. However, local programs are working diligently to quickly adapt to this new reality and to ensure that their treatment and recovery services remain accessible to those in need of support.
The coronavirus crisis has made it more difficult to access treatment and recovery services for substance-use disorders and the social distancing that helps to protect us from COVID-19 can make us more vulnerable to isolation and depression, which can exacerbate substance misuse.
The Opioid Task Force of Franklin County and the North Quabbin Region has compiled a list of resources for how to get help during this challenging time. This list includes resources for behavioral health, treatment, recovery, harm reduction, and much more.
Residential rehab programs, such as the Northern Hope Center in Greenfield, remain open. Most other residential treatment programs are continuing to provide services and have put strict safety and social distancing protocols in place to ensure that their residents remain safe from COVID-19. In the unfortunate event that one does get diagnosed with the virus, many have also set up separate spaces for the quarantine of patients, who can still get treatment while keeping everyone else from being infected.
COVID-19 has also impacted the thousands of people in Massachusetts being prescribed medications for opioid use disorder (MOUD, also referred to as medication-assisted treatment or MAT), such as methadone or Suboxone. Research shows that medications to treat addiction significantly increase adherence to treatment and make it possible for people in recovery to hold jobs, go back to school, and repair relationships.
In the United States, methadone is highly regulated and can only be dispensed at licensed methadone clinics. In most cases, people taking methadone must get their daily dose at the clinic. Methadone is a Schedule II drug, which has the potential for abuse, but other Schedule II drugs, such as Oxycodone and codeine, are not subject to the same strict regulations.
COVID-19 made the traditional clinic model of dispensing methadone extremely risky. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) issued emergency guidelines in March that relaxed these decades-old restrictions, allowing stable patients to take home up to 28 days worth of medication. Suboxone (the brand name for buprenorphine) is typically easier to access than methadone, but also subject to strict regulations. SAMHSA’s emergency guidelines now make it easier for people to access Suboxone via telehealth visits.
Treatment and recovery advocates have long argued that these heavy regulations on medications for opioid use disorder create too high of a barrier for people seeking treatment. Perhaps one silver lining of the coronavirus pandemic is that we are now experiencing a change in the guidelines that will lower one barrier to treatment.
The biggest threat to recovery during this pandemic may be the sense of isolation that many people are feeling now that most in-person gatherings have been shut down and so many people are experiencing job loss. Peter Babineau, the Western Regional Manager of Learn to Cope, a non-profit that holds support groups for family members of individuals with substance-use disorder, says that the COVID-19 pandemic has been “a nightmare for a lot of folks.” He reports that the increased stress and anxiety that go hand in hand with the pandemic can lead to an increase in relapse. Isolation and boredom can be triggers for drug and alcohol use.
Many people across the country are feeling the sudden loss of their in-person support groups, such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Most support groups have moved their meetings online, using platforms such as Zoom or GoToMeeting. Peer recovery centers, including the RECOVER Project in Greenfield, and the North Quabbin Recovery Center in Athol, have also moved their meetings and services to a virtual platform.
This sudden move online has drawbacks and benefits. Online communication doesn’t provide the same sense of intimacy and nuance that a face-to-face interaction provides, and it can feel awkward at first. To get online, many people have to learn new technology, which can be frustrating. However, remote solutions remove geographic and transportation barriers, which can make meetings more accessible. At Learn to Cope, Peter says that they have combined their Franklin County meeting with their Pittsfield meeting, which has been very successful. Individuals from Vermont, New York and other regions have joined in. “After all of this is resolved,” says Peter, “Learn to Cope will continue to offer virtual support, because it’s been such a success.”
It is often said in recovery circles that “the opposite of addiction is connection.” The coronavirus pandemic has highlighted for all of us just how important our personal connections are. While we may be temporarily more physically isolated than we were a few months ago, the opportunities for connection still exist and can be a source of light during these trying times.