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Addiction treatment and the coronavirus: The disease doesn’t stop, and neither do we

addiction treatment and the coronavirus

Going to rehab is a difficult decision even in the best of circumstances, but if you’re pondering addiction treatment and the coronavirus, you may feel like curling up in a fetal position and forgetting about life altogether.

addiction treatment and the coronavirusAddiction, however, absolutely does not care about COVID-19. It’s unconcerned with warnings from the Centers for Disease Control, with recommendations to maintain “social distancing” of 6 feet, to avoid individuals with fevers and coughs. As those of us in recovery know all too well, when the substances to which we’re addicted demand to be fed, we oblige.

That means going to the pharmacy, where other sick individuals wait for legitimate medication. That means hitting up our regular dealers, whose hands have exchanged money from unknown numbers of potential carriers. That means going to the liquor store, where the hacking cough by the guy one aisle over might be him trying to cough up his liver … or it might be coronavirus.

Addiction isn’t a matter of just stopping, as the National Institute on Drug Abuse points out: “Many people don’t understand why or how other people become addicted to drugs. They may mistakenly think that those who use drugs lack moral principles or willpower and that they could stop their drug use simply by choosing to. In reality, drug addiction is a complex disease, and quitting usually takes more than good intentions or a strong will.”

Stopping the use of drugs and alcohol often requires outside assistance, which is how an addiction treatment center can make a difference. But even more importantly, a reputable treatment facility like Cornerstone of Recovery or its sister facility, Stepping Stone to Recovery, addresses the root causes of addiction: emotional pain, past trauma, family of origin issues and general life circumstances that have been a part of our lives long before we every picked up alcohol and drugs but only got worse once we did.

That’s recovery. And those of us in recovery from drugs and alcohol understand that the process is an ongoing and evolving one that never stops — not even in the face of a global pandemic. So yes, addiction treatment and the coronavirus may seem like impossible things to reconcile, but addiction doesn’t clock out — and neither do we.

So how, then are we taking into account addiction treatment and the coronavirus on the Cornerstone of Recovery campus? With numerous new regulations and precautions, as well as daily meetings among the facility’s leadership team to keep tabs on and adjust to an ever-evolving situation.

Addiction Treatment and the Coronavirus: Patients

From the time potential patients first call us, we’re asking about their physical health. We need that information anyway to ensure that we provide them with the best care possible. Our Medical Detox process involves easing them off of alcohol and drugs, which can be complicated by any underlying medical issues, so we need a full picture of what sort of physical shape they’re in. Now, we’re asking them if they’re experiencing any of the symptoms of COVID-19, and if they are, we inform them that for the time being, we’re unable to accept them as a patient. That said, we don’t want to turn away anyone who needs our help, so we’ll work with them to determine a future date when they can come for addiction treatment and the coronavirus is no longer a possible danger to them or to those with whom they come in contact.

A phone assessment is one thing, and sometimes it can be several days between the first contact between our Admissions department and potential patients. Upon their arrival, we’ll screen them again, and as part of our intake process through our Assessment and Orientation (A&O) department and our nursing staff will administer a COVID antibody test to determine if they have an active or a past COVID infection, and they’ll get a full physical examination from our medical staff.

It should be noted that antibodies may take between 7-14 days to develop after being infected, so this additional testing does not guarantee that the person does not have an active infection.

It can be difficult, of course, to separate the symptoms of COVID-19 with those of acute withdrawal. Individuals who are detoxing from opioids often present with flu-like symptoms, but our nursing personnel know what to look for to differentiate between the two. And because our A&O process is individualized for every patient, those who are brought in showing signs of illness — withdrawal-related or otherwise — are kept isolated from other patients until a determination is made about their general health and well-being.

But what about patients who may be carriers but are asymptomatic, or don’t show signs until well after their admission? Our biggest coronavirus plan is to educate our patient community. We’ve placed posters about it — means of infection, methods of prevention, signs and symptoms — around campus to educate our staff and our patients about what to look for. We have hand sanitizer stations in all of our facilities, and we’re discouraging personal contact — handshakes, hugs, etc. — between one another. (Which we freely admit, if you’re familiar with the recovery community at all, is a difficult habit to break!)

We’re also separating segments of our patient population: Residential patients who are in one of our four primary programs, for example, aren’t allowed to frequent the facility where Intensive Outpatient attendees attend groups. We’ve also temporarily halted the Therapeutic Leave and Therapeutic Absence requests by patients in our Intensive Outpatient/Sober Living programs. Obviously, the last thing we want is to prevent our patients from using their weekend pass privileges to spend time with family, but in the event their travel might be to areas experiencing a high rate of infection, we have to act out of an abundance of precaution to protect the patient population to which they would return.

Most importantly, we’re emphasizing recommendations by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) regarding hand washing. We can’t stress enough to everyone on campus, employee and patient alike: Wash your hands, thoroughly and frequently.

What About Cornerstone Staff Members, Guests and Visitors?

addiction treatment and the coronavirusAs one of the premier drug and alcohol treatment facilities in the Southeast, and a leader in the addiction recovery field here in East Tennessee, we pride ourselves on hosting a number of outside organizations for guest lectures, educational panels, tours and other events that highlight our commitment to drug and alcohol treatment.

Needless to say, addiction treatment and the coronavirus has upended all of that. As a result, we have suspended all gatherings by both outside and in-house organizations — basically, any event that will bring large numbers of individuals onto campus who aren’t a regular part of our community.

These events include:

In addition, we’ve temporarily suspended family visitation and our regular Family Fundamentals therapeutic weekends. This isn’t a decision we’ve undertaken lightly, because we truly understand how cathartic, healing and necessary family therapy is. It’s an integral part of the treatment process, but for the time being, our priority is our patients’ physical health. Counselors and therapists will make arrangements with each patient and his or her family members to conduct family therapy sessions via phone or video chat, and we’ll make every effort to keep you apprised of your loved one’s progress, assuming that loved one signs a release allowing us to disclose that information to you.

We understand, however, that family members may need to drop off items of comfort or medical necessity for their loved ones. Family members will of course accompany potential patients to campus for admission. For the time being, we will not turn those individuals away, but we’re asking everyone who comes to Cornerstone for any purpose to please respect our mission and not come to campus if they’re exhibiting any of the symptoms associated with COVID-19.

Even then, those individuals will be asked to sign in at every facility on the campuses of Cornerstone and Stepping Stone, acknowledging that they do not show signs or symptoms of coronavirus or any communicable illness. Anyone who does show those symptoms will be turned away or asked to leave, so that we may continue to keep our patients safe from infection.

In addition, we’ve temporarily suspended all non-essential travel by Cornerstone and Stepping Stone employees, and we’re in constant communication with our staff members to ensure they use personal protection equipment to prevent the spread of illness. We’ve also reached out to companies that perform contract labor on our campuses — our lawn and landscaping contractor, for example — to make sure none of the employees who come here to perform tasks are exhibiting signs of illness.

Addiction Treatment and the Coronavirus: What If Someone Gets Sick?

That’s the probably the most pressing question of the day, isn’t it? We’ve fielded this query in almost every Admissions call we’ve received in the past week, and we fully understand the concern. First, let us reassure you that we have a wealth of experience in dealing with contagious illnesses in closed medical settings like Cornerstone and Stepping Stone. The flu often makes the rounds during the winter months, and we have standard protocols in place to contain any sort of viral outbreak. Cornerstone’s and Stepping Stone’s addiction treatment and the coronavirus is no different, because when a patient exhibits any symptoms, our medical and housekeeping staff take extra precautions, including:

  • Early identification through proactively monitoring the health of all patients and keeping tabs on the signs of developing illness.
  • Quarantining sick patients to a private room for the duration of their illness. All medication, meals and other essentials are delivered to their rooms. In case of a severe outbreak, we will adjust our room assignments to quarantine all cases to a single residence wing.
  • Extra housekeeping calls to patient rooms, during which time staff members strip linens and clean the rooms multiple times a day, including wiping down all surfaces with a bleach/alcohol solution.
  • An increased medical presence, during which time our nursing staff monitors ill patients every two hours.

In effect, we follow Standard Precautions as laid out by the CDC, which “are the minimum infection prevention practices that apply to all patient care, regardless of suspected or confirmed infection status of the patient, in any setting where health care is delivered.” These practices include, among others:

  • Hand hygiene.
  • Use of personal protective equipment (e.g., gloves, masks, eyewear).
  • Respiratory hygiene/cough etiquette.
  • Sterile instruments and devices.
  • Clean and disinfected environmental surfaces.

But what about COVID-19? According to Travis Pyle, Cornerstone’s Director of Medical Services, any patient with symptoms that fit a potential diagnosis for COVID-19 will be immediately evaluated: “They will be masked, quarantined and tested on campus, and if positive, the patient will then be evaluated to determine if they need to be placed in isolation for 14 days if they’re from out of state; sent home to self-quarantine if they live locally; or recommended to a local hospital for further evaluation. The community will then be encouraged to practice hand hygiene, social distancing and be monitored for any symptoms of COVID-19, and if deemed medically appropriate under guidelines provided by the CDC, also tested on campus for potential infection.”

So, Cornerstone Isn’t Closing Its Doors?

Absolutely not! While we have a healthy amount of concern and respect for the growing global pandemic, our sights are set on an epidemic that’s been claiming lives annually since we first opened our doors 30 years ago. It’s estimated that alcohol-related deaths in the United States number roughly 88,000 people annually. In 2017 alone, drug overdose deaths claimed the lives of more than 70,000 Americans. Both of those numbers are higher than the servicemen and women who lose their lives in the entirety of the Vietnam War.

While COVID-19 may make our mission more difficult, we believe that what we do is too important to shut it down. We have preventative plans in place to stop the coronavirus from gaining a foothold here at Cornerstone of Recovery, and we have a response plan at the ready in case it does.

Either way, our doors will be open — because we believe that addiction treatment and the coronavirus don’t have to be mutually exclusive. Addiction isn’t suspending operations until this pandemic reverses course, and we can’t, in good conscience, allow the legitimate concerns to overwhelm the needs of those who require recovery now more than ever.

For those of you who need the hope of a better tomorrow amid this crisis, please know that we’re here, we’re open to receive you and we want to help you find recovery from a disease that’s almost certain to kill you in time. Addiction is a chronic, progressive and fatal illness, but it doesn’t have to be — and you don’t have to wait to get the help that you need.

We're here for you when you are ready.

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