Addiction and mental health treatment programs struggle to find staff amid COVID outbreak

With the surge in coronavirus infections in Massachusetts, some addiction and mental health treatment programs are particularly affected. Many are reverting to the policies put in place at the start of the pandemic, such as telemedicine. Some have stopped accepting new patients altogether.

The High Point Treatment Center, headquartered in Brockton, has temporarily closed admissions to all of its programs due to increased infections among patients and staff. Patients seeking treatment are referred to a hotline operated by the state Bureau of Substance Addiction Services (BSAS).

“The High Point admissions team makes the BSAS hotline available to all callers,
but with many programs not accepting admissions, there is not much that can
be done right now, ”said Hillary Dubois, head of communications and prevention services for High Point. “While the pandemic is a major health crisis,
people with addiction / mental health appear to be
the most impacted. “

High Point has served nearly 20,000 patients across all of its programs in the past fiscal year, and Dubois says this is the most significant disruption to its services since the start of the pandemic. Even before the pandemic, Dubois said the admissions department typically answered 50 to 100 calls a day for inpatient services that it couldn’t answer.

Spectrum Health Systems, another large drug treatment provider that operates 15 sites in Massachusetts, said about a third of its staff were absent this week due to the surge in COVID infections. Lack of staff forced Spectrum to shut down a 20-bed program in Westboro for a few days this week, but it was able to keep other programs running.

“This latest increase is unlike anything we’ve seen in the past one to two years,” said Dr. Jeff Baxter, Chief Medical Officer of Spectrum. “It impacts not only our patients, but our staff as well. And so it’s even more difficult now than at the start of the COVID pandemic.”

In addition to strict testing and masking requirements, Spectrum is moving towards more telehealth services and limiting community activities in its residential programs. Baxter said he and other administrators are also undertaking clinical work because many workers are absent.

“It’s all over the bridge,” Baxter said. “We strive to keep the beds open, and if we are to keep them open we need to have core staff to provide security. As more and more of our staff and their families are affected, this is going to be harder and harder. “

Spectrum operates one of the few drug treatment programs in the state that also cares for patients with severe COVID-19. Baxter is concerned that as the virus spreads, there aren’t enough of these programs to help contain infection rates.

“There is still a great need statewide for safe places for people to go self-isolating once they test positive,” Baxter said. “And I think there is still a serious shortage of safe housing, whether temporary or longer term, to try to contain the spread of this virus.”

Gosnold Treatment Center, an addiction treatment center in Falmouth, Massachusetts, pictured January 13, 2021 (Matthew J. Lee / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

In Cape Cod, infections among staff at times forced Gosnold’s treatment center to temporarily close admissions, but the center has kept its programs open. Gosnold President and CEO Richard Curcuru says staff retention is a huge problem and that he has increased workers’ wages three times in the past year.

“Hiring staff has been a real challenge,” said Curcuru. “We have the added problem of being on Cape Cod – even under the best of circumstances it’s difficult to hire staff here. There is a lack of people willing to work in the group programs and our rehabilitation programs.”

In an effort to prevent the spread of the virus, Gosnold is returning to telehealth for services such as meetings and appointments with counselors starting Monday. The Boston Medical Center’s drug treatment programs have done the same.

Colleen LaBelle, director of the addiction treatment clinic at BMC’s office, said this can be a challenge in treating substance use disorders, which have been a growing concern during the COVID-pandemic. 19.

“I think it’s difficult for the patients,” LaBelle said. “People need this connection, they need this contact because when it comes to addiction it’s about connectivity. So it’s definitely hard for them not to have these groups and contacts in person. . “

Mental hospitals are also badly affected. On average, about half of the state’s psychiatric hospital units have had to temporarily stop accepting new patients, according to David Matteodo, executive director of the Massachusetts Association of Behavioral Health Systems. He says it’s largely because of personnel issues.

“It’s terrible,” Matteodo said. “Now we’re really tackling a really serious lack of access.”

If a patient has tested positive for coronavirus, access is even more difficult. Currently, only two Massachusetts psychiatric hospital units accept COVID-positive patients.

Matteodo has met with suppliers and state officials to try to find solutions to overcome what he hopes will be a temporary increase. He said the pandemic, exacerbating some mental health and addiction issues, once again highlighted a long-standing problem.

“The inpatient, drug addiction psychiatric behavioral health system was extremely stressed before COVID,” Matteodo said. “COVID has exacerbated the whole situation. The inpatient psychiatric system is therefore very stressed at the moment. “

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