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As the coronavirus spreads, Maryland’s addiction treatment centers are forced to adapt

Maryland’s addiction treatment centers are limiting group settings and plan to transition some services to online as they work to protect a vulnerable population from the spread of the new coronavirus.

As the state continues to see an increasing number of cases of COVID-19, treatment providers are taking additional measures to protect medical personnel and drug users undergoing treatment. The state has 37 confirmed cases of the virus as of Monday.

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Gaudenzia, which owns and operates six facilities in Baltimore City and Anne Arundel County, is limiting group sessions to 20 people or fewer and is shifting schedules to accommodate the smaller group sizes, regional director Kristy Blalock said.

Nonessential staff members, such as those who handle billing or administrative tasks, have been asked to work from home, Blalock added.

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The administrator of the Baltimore Intergroup Council of Alcoholics Anonymous said the vast majority of meetings in the Baltimore and Washington metropolitan area have moved online after she sent an email last week asking the approximately 500 groups in the region to look at hosting the meetings virtually.

Jen G., who declined to give her full last name because of the group’s anonymous nature, added that AA groups do maintain autonomy and some have decided to continue to meet in-person. But she has continually received emails and letters from different groups saying they’ll be moving their meetings to online chats via Zoom or other platforms, she said.

Peter D’Souza, CEO of Hope House in Anne Arundel County, said the addiction treatment provider is evaluating which outpatient programs could be held remotely.

But with several inpatient treatment programs requiring that staff be made available 24 hours a day to monitor patients, Blalock said Gaudenzia “is still functioning much as we were two weeks ago.”

“Our concern is having clients freak out and leave treatment,” Blalock said.

Gaudenzia and other treatment centers are keeping those inpatient services operating at regular capacity and continuing to admit patients, but are taking extra steps to screen patients and staff for the virus.

Representatives with Gaudenzia, Delphi Behavioral Health Group and Hope House, which all provide addiction treatment services, said they are regularly screening patients and staff for symptoms attributed to the virus, such as a fever or shortness of breath.

Treatment centers are restricting outside access to those facilities, telling family members and outside groups they will not be able to visit the centers while the coronavirus outbreak is still active.

Dominic Sirianni, CEO of Delphi, said the provider has restricted access to its facilities to singular entrances to keep a better eye on who enters and leaves.

D’Souza said patients are no longer allowed to go to outside events and the center has increased its programs offered to people in inpatient facilities “in order to keep them occupied.”

He said he’s also directed nonessential staff to work from home and has had a couple of nurses call out of work because of concerns that they work among vulnerable populations like the elderly when they’re not helping at the clinic.

“We have a skeleton crew, but we have not yet got to the point where the staff is so few where we have to cut programming or where we have to cut admissions,” D’Souza said.

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The three providers said they’re aggressively adhering to guidelines outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, having staff members and patients wash their hands constantly and practice social distancing whenever appropriate, such as during group therapy sessions.

Adrienne Breidenstine, spokeswoman for Behavioral Health System Baltimore, said the agency is making an extra effort to reach out to the drug-using population about the risks of coronavirus.

She said the agency is trying to make the users aware of the risks they face as a result of their habit, whether talking to them about the dangers of using dirty syringes or how they could be at greater risk of contracting the disease at homeless shelters if they’re not practicing social distancing and safe health practices.

Breidenstine added that the agency is talking with providers about coordinating certain services through TeleHealth, which allows providers to distribute some health-related services virtually. D’Souza said his organization is evaluating certain outpatient groups to see whether they could conduct their meetings virtually.

While the state has given guidance on how to stem the spread of the disease, Sirianni said he wants more guidance on what happens if a patient tests positive for the coronavirus. All of the providers said none of their patients tested positive for the disease.

He said that while the center would stop admitting patients, what happens beyond that is up in the air. Patients in treatment regularly do not have a stable home to return to, if one at all, and quarantining them and the staff on-site would require Delphi to prepare food and resources for everyone still at the quarantined facility.

“How do we wind down the site?” Sirianni said. “There might not be a good answer.”

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