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Pandemic of Dependence

Managing addiction during Covid-19


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On March 19, 2020, an Executive Order and Public Health Order from the California state government directed all Californians to stay home except "to go to an essential job or to shop for essential needs." Labeled an "essential business," the liquor store BevMo! on San Pablo Avenue stayed open on March 19 and never closed. In fact, a BevMo! employee stated that the store now has more customers than since before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. BevMo! has also added an alcohol delivery option at all of its locations. Since March, many East Bay residents have developed a new relationship to substance abuse.

Angelito Kemp is the program manager for the Fremont office of Center Point, an Alameda County–supported referral center that places people into substance use programs.

"The program is taking less clients because of Covid, because they want to social distance," Kemp says. "We have what we call a 'pending services list'...  We've had it as long as 95 clients who need to get into a program." 

Center Point is contracted with about 15 Alameda County programs with different care levels. Generally, the programs test clients for Covid-19 and bring them into the general population if the test is negative, but if the client tests positive, they are not allowed in. Kemp emphasizes that Covid-19 has in no way stopped substance abuse, but has in fact hindered programs in place for helping addicts, including homeless people, who make up a substantial amount of Center Point's patients.

The Bay Area's homeless population has grown quickly in recent years, and suffers significantly from substance abuse. Now, with many recovery services going online, the East Bay homeless population is blocked from the regular in-person meetings they previously relied on.

"This has affected the homeless population's ability to stay sober and off alcohol," says James Raggio of East Bay Intergroup, which supports Alcoholics Anonymous Fellowships in Alameda County. "Because we've had a certain percentage of our members who are homeless who would come to in-person meetings that don't have access to technology and who are not able to attend zoom meetings ... .  I'm certain it has affected their sobriety."

Another East Bay recovery program is Options Recovery Services, an agency with outpatient treatment services as well as housing for people in recovery. Justin Philips is an operations officer at Options Recovery Services Center in Berkeley and confirms that many Options clients are homeless.

He adds that they expect the homeless population to increase soon, "With people that have pre-existing health conditions, mental health conditions, addiction, and so on. That is going to create a critical situation for them. Then you have people that are obviously impacted by not having stable employment or losing their jobs or not being able to afford their rent or their mortgage or what have you."

Philips points out that homelessness is entwined with substance abuse.

"With the current nature of Covid and all the stress that comes along with that it reactivates trauma, it creates a sense of instability and unsafety," he says. "People go to what works for them. Unfortunately, for millions of people alcohol is what works for them, nicotine is what works for them, methamphetamine is what works for them; and that reignites a vicious cycle of dependence that is deadly and leads to more and more and more problems."

Although it may have seemed like the world shut down on March 19, drug dealing never faltered and access to addictive substances was not stopped.

"If you ask just about any addict, they'll say, if they need a drug, they're going to find it," says Edward G., who works for the Northern California Region of Narcotics Anonymous, a 12-step fellowship and sister-program to Alcoholics Anonymous. As per the group's foundation of anonymity, his last name is not included in this article. "Addicts will go to any length to get what they think they need ... I think that the business still carried on. It's an illicit business, is it not? So why would they be hindered by any public order?"

NA has not seen any significant decrease in relapses or lack of access to narcotics from Covid-19, and Edward compares the virus to the disease of addiction in its ruthlessness.

According to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism, around 88,000 people die in the United States each year from alcohol-related causes alone, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention around 46,900 people died from opioid-related causes in 2018.

"As many Americans that have died from Covid, we lost that many Americans last year from substance abuse and alcohol, if not more, and I still think there's a huge stigma attached," says Josh Zeises, founder of the Facebook group Quarantine Conference: Mental Health & Substance Abuse, and chief marketing officer of Enlightened Solutions drug and alcohol addiction treatment center in New Jersey. "People don't want to admit it, they don't want to admit they have a problem, they don't want to admit that their family members are suffering."

Zeises founded the Facebook group on March 20th and used it to host a digital conference on substance abuse with hundreds of attendees from all around the world. He worries that without in-person services, addicts are struggling.

"People that have found themselves addicted or relapsed or into a drinking habit are going to have a very difficult time [going back to work] without the help of a detox center," he says.