For someone trying to stay sober, isolation can be dangerous, Justyn Patton said.

A Somerset-area resident and Navy veteran, Patton lived with addiction for more than 15 years.

Now, working as a certified recovery specialist who mentors others trying to stay sober, he often reminds people in recovery that there’s truth in the message “You’re not alone” – because there’s a world of people who understand the struggle.

But the social distancing push associated with COVID-19 has kept recovering addicts from those important connections.

“One of my biggest taglines for people trying to stay on the right path is that there are 23.5 million people in recovery in the United States – go out and meet some of them,” Patton said. “It’s important to be out there, talking to people. But with (the coronavirus), that’s not something you can really do right now.”

Pennsylvania’s Department of Drug and Alcohol Program and its network of treatment and support providers say they recognize that issue, which is why they are working around the pandemic – oftentimes through technology – to ensure doors and opportunities remain open for every stage of need.

Whether it’s inpatient treatment for people ready to beat addiction, outpatient care or support groups for those striving to remain off drugs or alcohol, program providers are adapting to the COVID-19 outbreak to ensure programs remain available, Department of Drug and Alcohol Programs Secretary Jennifer Smith said.

‘Willing’ to adapt

For the past 27 months, faith, family and a steady schedule of fellowship meetings have helped Timothy B. rebuild his life in northern Somerset County.

After spending more than 25 years as a slave to drug addiction, he said he’s been able to turn the page on that chapter of his life by opening up to others. After spending time in treatment, he’s continued meeting with a group of fellow former drug users in recovery – on a first-name only basis – to discuss progress, pressures and problems – the type of pitfalls that might have sent him back to substance abuse a decade ago.

“After years of digging myself in deeper in deeper, I finally put the shovel down,” he said. “And once I found a 12-step fellowship, they started helping me fill in that hole.”

Over the past few weeks, Timothy, 41, has had to turn to a computer monitor to continue meeting in group settings.

Fellowships across the nation – such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous – have adjusted by shifting their intimate meetings from community centers and church basements to webcams and video conferences to stay together.

“What I’m seeing around me right now is a resilient community that is willing to adapt,” Timothy said. “For me, with the coronavirus spreading, I realize staying home means I might be helping someone else, too.”

Telehealth options

Across Pennsylvania, the state Drug and Alcohol Programs have been working with inpatient and outpatient treatment providers to ensure those who are still abusing drugs or alcohol – or at risk – have access to help, too, Smith said.

She said the state received a federal waiver to allow one-on-one support – including addiction and mental health counseling – through web-based “telehealth” services people can access at home.

“People are still a phone call away,” said Sarah Deist, director of communications for UPMC and its Twin Lakes Center treatment facility.

The technology allows people who need it to communicate through two-way audio and video – much like people often do through FaceTime or Skype.

“It gives (providers) additional flexibility ... while keeping them and counselors healthy,” Smith said.

Someone will answer

Given the “stay-at-home” guidelines and – for some – panic, tied to the coronavirus, Smith said her department anticipated a surge in calls this month.

But that hasn’t happened in many parts of Pennsylvania, Cambria County included.

The Cambria County Drug and Alcohol Program operates year-round, linking residents trying to break free of addiction to the help they need.

Cambria County Drug and Alcohol Program Director Fred Oliveros said his office’s call volume dropped in March – 34 calls compared to 46 and 47 over the same month in 2018 and 2019.

Oliveros said he isn’t sure why that’s happening.

But he and Smith agreed that coronavirus concerns might be causing some people who are struggling with drugs or alcohol to hesitate about reaching out.

Oliveros’ response: Pick up the phone.

“Even now” is the right time to get help, he said. “Our providers are still accepting people into treatment. We’re still able to transport people to facilities.”

Smith noted that drug and alcohol officials, and treatment centers, have put procedures in place to protect staff and visitors from the coronavirus risk – and from exposing one another.

“We’re still here, ready and able to provide the resources you need,” she said.

‘Take’ at home

The state also received federal approval to allow state-approved opioid treatment providers to prescribe as much as 28 days’ worth of “take-home” medication to qualified patients in their opioid treatment programs.

Until now, state-designated “Centers of Excellence” such as Alliance Medical Service’s Richland location were also permitted to prescribe 14 days’ worth of medication to a client, according to Pam Gehlmann, the regional director for Alliance’s seven western Pennsylvania locations.

Alliance serves nearly 750 people through its methadone and Suboxone programs, normally bringing a crowd of patients to its doors every morning, afternoon and evening, she said.

The adjustments – and the ability to do counseling remotely – has enabled Alliance to reduce the virus exposure risk.

“But you can’t (increase take-home doses) for everybody. Every person is different. There’s always going to be people who have to come in every day or every other day,” she said, noting trust and positive gains are built over time.

And with the coronavirus causing added stress, “we don’t want to put someone in a situation where they might be triggered,” Gehlmann said.

Leigh, an Alliance patient who turned to methadone seven years ago, said she started talking to family months ago about the looming COVID-19 risk.

“Even when it comes to snow storms, I’m always anxious about the what-ifs. I have to plan for everything,” said Leigh, who now lives in Blair County.

Leigh agreed to speak with The Tribune-Democrat under the condition of anonymity because she worries the stigma surrounding methadone could unravel the public gains she’s made as an active member of her community.

Regarding the coronavirus, she credited Alliance for being “a step ahead” over the past several months, putting social distancing and disinfection practices into place early and then continuing to adapt along the way. She also credited the program with helping her develop the coping skills needed to deal with the “stressful” situation.

“The most important thing right now is keeping everyone safe,” she said.

Treatment adjustments

Officials with UPMC’s Twin Lakes Center in Somerset and Peniel Residential Treatment Center in Johnstown both said the coronavirus – and ever-changing recommendations on how to prevent it from spreading – have them continuing to adapt.

But both are serving patients.

At Twin Lakes, inpatient group therapy was suspended over the past two weeks while center administrators have explored alternative solutions. But one-on-one counseling continued through telehealth, Deist said.

Aside from social distancing and monitoring for coronavirus symptoms, routines haven’t changed much for residents. On average, they spend 18 days in treatment.

“One of the biggest things we’re doing is limiting the number of people coming into the center,” Deist said, noting that outpatient services can be conducted online.

The center hasn’t laid off any staff, she said. UPMC has pledged to continue paying all of its staff normal “current” wages through May 9, even if some employees are reassigned to other duties during the pandemic.

The road ahead

Public Relations Director Durean Coleman said Peniel has sought to keep its main focus on serving its 2020 class of clients with as few interruptions as possible.

“Their our main priority,” he said.

But as a nonprofit sustained through private and foundation donations, the faith-based treatment center’s officials are also aware that the sharp economic downturn the coronavirus has brought nationwide can have a devastating impact, Coleman said.

“We’ve seen reports that funding (from donations) to nonprofits can go down as much as 30%,” Coleman said, noting that people often “tighten their belts” at home when times get tough.

Penial has been in operation since the early 1980s – and in the Johnstown area for 30 years. Coleman said the nonprofit is thankful that when word of the shutdown’s economic impact started to spread, some of the program’s most loyal supporters stepped up quickly.

“We’ve had people from the business community and family members of people who have been through our program reach out to help us weather the storm,” he said.

Some donated paper products. Others sent checks, he said.

As the pandemics presence has shifted from days to months, that support is vital, Coleman said.

“Without it, we’d be facing really hard choices right now,” he said. “It’s important that we make sure people don’t forget about us in times like these.”

Smith said there are no indications any state-licensed treatment providers are in danger of closing.

But financial hardships will likely build as the pandemic lingers, she said.

“Whether it’s workforce shortages, overtime costs .... just having people healthy and willing to work,” she said. “I think it’s something we’ll have to contend with in the near future.”

David Hurst is a reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. He can be reached at (814) 532-5053. Follow him on Twitter @TDDavidHurst and Instagram @TDDavidHurst.

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