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Substance use treatment goes virtual as people shelter from pandemic

Alisa Roth May 12, 2020
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Treatment centers are pivoting to online counseling to provide services while minimizing risk. Zak Bennett/AFP via Getty Images
COVID-19

Substance use treatment goes virtual as people shelter from pandemic

Alisa Roth May 12, 2020
Heard on:
Treatment centers are pivoting to online counseling to provide services while minimizing risk. Zak Bennett/AFP via Getty Images
HTML EMBED:
COPY

Until last month, the women in the opioid users group at the Hazelden Betty Ford treatment center met in a cozy room on the center’s campus in St. Paul, Minnesota. Now, though, the 10 women meet with counselor Jessica Hernandez online. 

It’s one of the ways treatment centers are finding to let people stay in treatment for substance use disorders but keep themselves safe from COVID-19. 

Hernandez said the new format, which they started using shortly after the coronavirus crisis emerged, is working. But it’s definitely challenging, too.

“Typically in our groups when we’re here in person, we’re able to see things based on how our client presents that we’re just not able to see on screen,” she said. She was talking about the nonverbal cues that are so important in therapy, things like facial expressions or signals of when a person is really finished talking. 

The number of people in treatment at Hazelden has been dropping since the crisis started. One program that usually has about 200 people, for example, only has around 120 right now.  The cost of treatment may be one reason numbers are down. Most of the people at Hazelden are privately insured, but Hazelden is expensive. A group session like the one Hernandez leads is $375 a meeting, and people usually meet more than once a week, often for many weeks. 

But the numbers are down at other places too, including the Park Avenue Center in Minneapolis, where most of the patients are publicly insured. Its outpatient program, which usually has 100 people in it, is down to 85.

Director Mark Casagrande said as few as 20 of the 85 people enrolled in the outpatient program are even showing up. The center is starting to offer some group sessions online, but clients have to have a computer or phone, and not all of them do. 

Robert Gjevre enrolled in an outpatient program to treat his addiction to meth after his parole officer said it was either that or back to prison. 

He’s living in a group home. He and his housemates used to go to the treatment center for meetings. Now, Gjevre said, the counselors come to them to minimize the number of people in one space. Counselors and clients can wear masks, but like they are everywhere else, masks are in short supply in the Twin Cities.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

What’s the outlook for vaccine supply?

Chief executives of America’s COVID-19 vaccine makers promised in congressional testimony to deliver the doses promised to the U.S. government by summer. The projections of confidence come after months of supply chain challenges and companies falling short of year-end projections for 2020. What changed? In part, drugmakers that normally compete are now actually helping one another. This has helped solve several supply chain issues, but not all of them.

How has the pandemic changed scientific research?

Over the past year, while some scientists turned their attention to COVID-19 and creating vaccines to fight it, most others had to pause their research — and re-imagine how to do it. Social distancing, limited lab capacity — “It’s less fun, I have to say. Like, for me the big part of the science is discussing the science with other people, getting excited about projects,” said Isabella Rauch, an immunologist at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland. Funding is also a big question for many.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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