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Before the coronavirus became a pandemic, Emma went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting every week in the Boston area and to another support group at her methadone clinic. She said she felt safe, secure and never judged.
“No one is thinking, ‘Oh, my God. She did that?’” said Emma, “’cause they’ve been there.”
Now, with AA and other 12-step groups moving online, and the methadone clinic shifting to phone meetings and appointments, Emma said she is feeling more isolated. (KHN is not using her last name because she still uses illegal drugs sometimes.) Emma said the coronavirus may make it harder to stay in recovery.
“Maybe I’m old fashioned,” said Emma, “but the whole point of going to a meeting is to be around people and be social and feel connected, and I’d be totally missing that if I did it online.”
While it’s safer to stay home to avoid getting and spreading COVID-19, addiction specialists acknowledge Emma’s concern: Doing so may increase feelings of depression and anxiety among people in recovery — and those are underlying causes of drug and alcohol use and addiction.
“We consider addiction a disease of isolation,” said Dr. Marvin Seppala, chief medical officer at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation. “Now we’re isolating all these people and expecting them to pick up the phone, get online, that sort of thing — and it may not work out as well.”
Emma has another frustration: If the methadone clinic isn’t allowing gatherings, why is she still required to show up daily and wait in line for her dose of the pink liquid medication?
The answer is in tangled rules for methadone dispensing. The federal government has loosened them during the pandemic — so that patients don’t all have to make a daily trip to the methadone clinic, even if they are sick. But patients say clinics have been slow to adopt the new rules.
Mark Parrino, president of the American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence, said he issued guidelines to members late last week about how to operate during pandemics. He recommended that clinics stop collecting urine samples to test for drug use. Many patients can now get a 14- to 28-day supply of their addiction treatment medication so they can make fewer trips to methadone or buprenorphine clinics.