Addiction Doesn’t Stop for The Pandemic: Spectrum Health Systems’ Fight During COVID-19

Lisa Blanchard, VP, Spectrum Health Systems
A man with a white beard wearing blue scrubs stands next to empty seats in a clinic hallway. Photo by Foto Garage AG on Unsplash

Spectrum Health Systems is an addiction treatment provider in Massachusetts. This blog is part of a series highlighting innovative provider approaches to addiction treatment during COVID-19. Spectrum and Shatterproof do not have a monetary relationship.

Two months ago, health care as we knew it changed its course. What started as precautions taken against a slow-spreading illness has turned into a full-blown emergency response. COVID-19 is top of mind for health care professionals, but the public health crisis of addiction is still going strong.

According to the American Psychiatric Association, more than 1/3 of Americans say the pandemic has had a significant impact on their mental health, with 8% sharing that it has caused them to drink and misuse drugs more than before.

Drug and alcohol addiction stop for nothing, not even a global pandemic. But that doesn’t mean treatment centers haven’t adapted to the changes and increased safety procedures to mitigate the spread of COVID-19.

At Spectrum Health Systems, the health and well-being of our clients and staff is our top priority. In light of the current public health crisis, we are taking every measure to reduce the risk of COVID-19 exposure. We immediately jumped into action when local authorities enacted shelter-in-place orders, mask mandates, and other requirements. We began screening for the virus immediately following Massachusetts’s first case of COVID-19 back in February.

Beginning with intake, we launched a redesigned admission procedure.

Screening is now conducted, one client at a time, in a trailer located just outside our Charles J. Faris Recovery Center in Westborough, Mass. We also incorporated new procedures for monitoring for COVID-19 symptoms and evaluating personal interactions with potentially infected people before new clients enter the building. We also implemented isolation policies to protect currently admitted clients within our inpatient treatment centers.

We’ve increased telehealth services.

Under normal circumstances, clients visit our outpatient treatment centers on a daily basis for individual assessments, medications for addiction treatment (MAT) and counseling services. In March, we started individual telehealth counseling, and by April, we began holding remote group counseling sessions.  Additionally, our clinical staff makes frequent phone calls to keep the connection alive with each client.

For our MAT program, we sought and received approval from state and federal regulators to increase the number of take-home medications.

Usually, medications like methadone must be administered within the center by a nurse, but under the adapted conditions, our clients are evaluated and, if approved, can then receive take-home medication that ranges from a two-day supply to a 28-day supply. Out of 3,500 clients enrolled in our MAT program, more than 50% are now receiving take-home medications.  

Across all of our programs, we’ve ramped up mental health support for our clients by staying in constant communication.

Normally, addiction professionals discourage those newly in recovery from isolating themselves, but now, isolation is imperative for saving lives. With this in mind, we’ve increased access to our staff so clients can maintain consistent contact with clinicians, counselors, nurses and doctors. Just because we’re physically distanced, doesn’t mean we must be socially isolated.

It’s hard to tell what lies ahead for the pandemic, but it’s important that treatment programs stand ready to tackle any and all challenges.

Lisa Blanchard is the vice president of clinical services at Spectrum Health Systems. She is an experienced and licensed mental health clinician with 20 years of experience in the behavioral health field. Blanchard holds a master’s degree in counseling psychology and a bachelor’s degree in psychology.