PORTLAND, Ore. — Amid coronavirus-prompted social distancing measures, in-person meetings that support the sobriety of Americans struggling with substance use disorder have been canceled across many states, including Oregon.

“The secret sauce with recovery is personal connection,” Brent Canode, executive director of The Alano Club of Portland, told Street Roots. He said social distancing has “fundamentally altered” this reality. Traditionally, he explained, people in recovery attend group meetings, receive peer-to-peer services and engage in direct person-to-person contact.

With the loss of in-person connections, the COVID-19 crisis is compounding the existing crisis of addiction in Oregon. 

"We’re losing five people a day in alcohol-related deaths, one to two in drug overdoses — and then this happened," Mike Marshall, executive director at Oregon Recovers, a statewide coalition led by people in recovery, said. 

Marshall pointed out that people exiting drug and alcohol treatment programs are now finding the support system they need to start building a new, healthier community has gone online. On top of that, many people in recovery who are reeling from other effects of the crisis have lost key components of their coping mechanisms.

For retirees in recovery watching their 401(k)s collapse, for people who have one or two years of sobriety under their belt and were laid off from a bar or restaurant earlier this week, and for the 35-year-old mother looking after two children while she works from home, “those are stressors on any good day,” Marshall said. And, suddenly, these folks aren't able to attend their regular group meetings or their recovery fitness classes, and they aren't able to connect with other support systems they might typically turn to when they're feeling life pressures mount, he added, “across the board, everyone is stressed.”

This will likely result in an increase in relapses, "which means we’re going to see overdoses, and alcohol- and drug-related injuries and sicknesses walking into the emergency rooms,” Marshall said.

It would further overwhelm a hospital system that’s already projected to be overwhelmed.

But many people may find the support they're looking for in online meetings and other resources that are continually popping-up on the internet.

“Fortunately today, we have so many tools to get as close to that personal contact as possible,” Canode said. Some recovery groups and service providers, such as the club Canode oversees, have scrambled quickly to digitize their services.

One week ago, The Alano Club of Portland formed a national initiative with WEConnect Health and Unity Recovery in Philadelphia to launch a series of nationwide Zoom channels where people with behavioral health needs can connect via video conferencing.

“Attendance has shot through the roof,” Canode said. “Last night we had over 500 people in our 9 o’clock meeting, and our calculation this morning was 4,200 people have attended them in seven days.”

While these larger meetings can limit the number of people who are able to share, Canode said they offer opportunities to listen, connect and help people to realize they are not alone, which is especially important at this time. He's also getting ready to launch several smaller channels where Alano Club members can congregate with their familiar groups. 

In response to social distancing orders, Oregon Recovers has pivoted from advocacy to focus on getting resources to people in recovery, especially in rural areas. It’s working with Google to launch a website that will serve as a statewide recovery network, providing Oregonians access to all forms of recovery available in their specific localities. It’s set to go live Monday, March 23, and Street Roots will update this story when the link becomes available.

Going online “is a decent replacement given the crisis,” said Marshall, “but it’s going to leave a lot of people on the sidelines.”

Canode agreed, saying “the unfortunate part about this is that person-to-person contact, especially with the most marginalized and vulnerable populations, is going to be a real struggle.”

An Alcoholics Anonymous group Marshall has belonged to for years had a conference call Tuesday night. Some members talked about having their next meeting on Zoom, an online video conferencing platform. It was a completely foreign concept to some of the group’s older members. Some didn’t have computers, “and even if they did,” Marshall said, “they weren’t even aware you could do Zoom or Skype.”

On March 16, the Alcoholics Anonymous U.S.-Canada office issued a statement in response to the many inquiries it was receiving from groups and members wondering how they should proceed as social distancing measures spread across communities.

The Portland Area Intergroup of Alcoholics Anonymous has recommended that the shrinking number of groups that are continuing to meet in person forgo snacks, handshaking and handing out coins. It states on its homepage: “It is no longer realistic to keep a list of suspended meetings. Each meeting had to make the decision to suspend, many were forced to suspend by their landlord.” The intergroup is keeping a rolling index of online meeting URLs at pdxaa.org.

There are also some telephonic resources available to those who can’t attend virtual meetings, with some Alcoholics Anonymous meetings available by phone, and the Oregon Warmline Hotline at 800-698-2392, where callers will be connected with a behavioral health peer.

For the time being, most local Narcotics Anonymous meetings that haven't been cancelled continue to be held in person.

A representative for Portland Narcotics Anonymous, who asked not to be named, said that may change as the situation progresses, but for now, groups are staying compliant with social distancing measures by turning people away once the limit of 25 people is reached. Although, with most people staying home, she said that hasn’t really been an issue. National online Narcotics Anonymous meetings can be found at virtual-na.org.

The Recovery Gym is taking its Recovery CrossFit classes online, beginning March 19, and The Alano Club of Portland will soon digitize its mindfulness classes and support groups, led by the doctoral students from Pacific University. Additional online recovery options from various providers are listed at recoveryresourcespdx.com.

But what about people currently enrolled in in-patient or out-patient drug and alcohol treatment?

Marshall said without COVID-19 testing readily available, the challenge will be keeping sick people from entering programs and infecting others.

As of March 17, De Paul Treatment Centers were continuing to admit patients on a walk-in basis but have asked those who are sick not to enter and is placing patients who become sick on “mandatory isolated bed rest,” according to the centers’ most recent COVID-19 update. De Paul is also continuing out-patient groups, but limiting their size.

In-patient treatment programs across Portland, including at Native American Rehabilitation Association of the Northwest, Old Town Recovery Center and Serenity Lane, are still operating, but many have halted visitation.

A spokesperson for the Multnomah County Department of Community Justice told Street Roots the county is working with treatment providers serving people on probation, parole and who are working through diversion programs to ensure services are maintained.

“We also understand the limitations we are all facing during these challenging times," the department said in a statement sent to Street Roots in response to our inquiry. “We will not hold justice-involved individuals accountable for conditions and directives that are impossible for them to access at this time.” 

This article was originally published by Street Roots News, one of more than a dozen news organizations throughout the state sharing their coverage of the novel coronavirus outbreak to help inform Oregonians about this evolving heath issue

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