Addiction communities wary of long term COVID-19 impacts

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By Dakota Antelman, Contributing Writer

Region – Lisa and Doug Aylaian say their cell phones have recently been ringing more often than normal.

They’re peer facilitators for a Hudson branch of the Learn to Cope support group, which works with families of people struggling with addiction. And many of those calls, they say, are from overwhelmed group members.

As confusion and anxiety hits all in the era of coronavirus, this already at-risk community, after all, is feeling an increased strain that, some say, may reshape it for years to come.

“There are a lot of roadblocks to begin with in this disease,” Lisa said. “Now, there are just more of them.”

As society locks down, she and her husband are quick to note that thousands of people across the commonwealth remain addicted to substances.

That has posed a unique challenge to the web of family members and advocates committed to fighting the drug crisis that killed more than 2,200 people just last year in Massachusetts alone. That challenge is — provide treatment in a landscape afraid to literally and proverbially even open the front door.

“That’s so tough,” Lisa said.

Perhaps most prominent in this new phase in the addiction fight, the Aylaians say, has been the amended process of involuntarily committing loved ones to treatment.

In normal times, a concerned family member or public official first goes to court to file a written petition detailing the condition of the person in question.

A judge can then call a hearing and may issue a warrant for police to personally bring a person to court.

Once in court, the hearing proceeds, often with attorneys present, to determine whether the state should send the person involuntarily to one of at least six treatment facilities across Massachusetts.

These days, though, courts are closed. And while civil commitments proceed, they do so through remote means that few are familiar with. That confusion, Doug Aylaian says, has made some reluctant to have loved ones committed when they might otherwise be willing.

“When you’re living with this disease,” he said, “to do one more thing sometimes feels so overwhelming.”

The challenges don’t end at court, however. Those with loved ones who consent to treatment, advocates say, are finding closed doors and hearing cascades of “no.”

“We are pushing for our families to stand up strong, saying ‘you need to find a bed,’” Lisa said. “But it’s hard because there are not a lot of places right now admitting new patients.”

That pushing, in turn, is happening in abbreviated support group settings that, Lisa and Doug worry, are not providing the same benefits they normally do.

Learn to Cope has switched its weekly meetings to online, video conference formats. Narcotics and Alcoholics Anonymous groups across the region have followed suit. So has the support group Marlborough’s Kathy Leonard runs for families whose loved ones pass away due to addiction.

It’s been hard.

“That support you get in person is far more beneficial than what you get over Zoom when you get just a screen and a voice,” Doug said.

Leonard, meanwhile, says she worries about the lack of physical contact. Hugs, she says, are a source of comfort at her meetings. Distanced, she worries her group members won’t be able to connect as they normally do.

Back at Learn to Cope, all this disruption, advocates fear, could be deadly, adding new names to the list of lives COVID-19 and its ripples claim.

“[People with addictions] struggle day-to-day,” Doug said. “If they don’t get something today, then they will use tonight, or they will use it tomorrow. It’s extremely dangerous.”

Even as a black cloud gathers, though, Lisa, Doug, and Kathy Leonard have hope for the future.

Lisa and Doug specifically have their eyes on controversial regulations on halfway houses and sober homes that allow immediate evictions the first time residents miss payments. As COVID-19 exposes issues of housing insecurity, they hope the state government extends to substance use patients some of the protections often afforded to other renters.

Leonard, meanwhile, says she hopes the mass mobilization of resources and funding to fight COVID-19 shows advocates the true ability of their government, and generally emboldens the community to fight for the public health response she says is long overdue.

“When this ends,” she said, “I think you’re going to see a lot of people speaking out.”