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Virtual help: Technology connects addicts with support in social distancing times

If you are an addict struggling with sobriety how do you reach out for help in the face of today’s virus environment of “social distancing” and “stay in place” isolation?

Welcome to the new world of telehealth and online therapy.

According to substance abuse experts at CA Bridge, an Oakland arm of the Public Health Institute, people who use drugs are doubly at risk during this pandemic, not only from overdose but also from increased risk of infection. Medical mobilization to address the COVID-19 coronavirus is leading to shifts in health care that may inadvertently make accessing treatment for addiction even harder.

Serena Clayton, CA Bridge program director, said:

“There’s no way you can sit at home and endure this. Everything about the way the human brain and body works will prioritize seeking relief, whether that means showing up in a crowded ER or finding drugs on the street.”

Dr. Hannah Snyder, primary care and addiction medicine specialist at Zuckerberg San Francisco General Hospital and a principal investigator for the CA Bridge program, said:

“It’s more important than ever that people addicted to opioids or other drugs are given medication for addiction treatment. Unless treated, they may go into withdrawal or risk overdose, thereby increasing the chances of spreading the virus within their high-risk populations and to the health care workers who treat them.”

Edward G., a spokesman for Narcotics Anonymous in San Francisco, said Thursday:

“(E)very support meeting has come to a screeching halt.”

Pixabay Addiction support groups strive to make virtual meetings and telehealth options available for people struggling with substances during widespread COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.

Although some counties are terming support groups as essential services, some are not, Edward G. noted. The NA group is utilizing online video forums like and

Pointing to the “amazing support” members are showing for the alternate method, Edward G. said:

“Online support is a very important tool.”

Edward G. said the switch to online therapy and support “has been a real eye-opener” for the group.

He said:

“At any time you can join an online support group and be chatting with addicts from other cities, other states and other countries.”

He added:

“Suddenly it becomes a big world of network support.”

“Isolation is by far the worst that can ever happen to any addict, but with the push a button you can connect to a hundred other addicts.”

The NA spokesperson said:

“(NA) has done an exceptional job in coming to the call. Online meetings are connecting members from all over the world with one another. A level of NA that we have barely seen is coming to fruition. We do however need to remain vigilant, not only to the addict who still suffers, but our communities, as well ourselves. These truly are trying times, and the level of our success is directly tied to our willingness to do our part.”

Alcoholics Anonymous in San Francisco also announced:

“In lieu of physical meetings, our membership has quickly established remote (phone/online) meetings. At this time, we do not know which, if any, physical meetings are still taking place.”

Their website is still listing some meetings that are continuing.

Dr. Ori Tzvieli, medical director of Contra Costa Health Services, said many patients are afraid of seeking therapy. His department has cut down on personal appointments and switched to phone and online counseling.

He said the county’s doctors are extending prescription refills and trimming group meetings. The crisis also is placing extreme pressure on the county’s medical staff, he said.

Tzvieli also noted that substance abusers often are dealing with a variety of chronic health issues like diabetes, heart conditions and nutrition. Many are homeless. Addiction itself is a social stigma to bear.

The doctor said:

“We’re still emphasizing with our patients that treatment is still available.”

CA Bridge recommends that patients be encouraged to use harm reduction principles and good hygiene. For people who are not yet ready to start medication treatment, harm reduction, such as clean drug consumption supplies, naloxone, fentanyl strips and remote monitoring for overdose, can be lifesaving.

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