Pandemic caused changes, disruptions for drug treatment programs, specialty courts

James Mayse, Messenger-Inquirer, Owensboro, Ky.
·6 min read

Mar. 7—When the COVID-19 pandemic began shutting down businesses and public spaces last March, Owensboro Regional Recovery officials decided to keep the residents at the facility rather than sending them out to support group meetings.

When ORR clients attend a support group meeting now, it is through a virtual program like Zoom.

"We are still doing everything virtually," said Sarah Adkins, ORR's director. "Our clients have not left our building, except for absolutely necessary medical appointments."

The experience of going virtual for meetings, and meeting with sponsors, has been a mixed bag, Adkins said. Being virtual has meant ORR clients can hold group meetings with people from literally all over the world.

"They never would have heard from those people," Adkins said, adding that ORR clients know "there are people all over the world who have the same feelings and experiences that they have."

But whether being forced to go virtual has hampered substance abuse treatment is anyone's guess.

"I really don't have an opinion on that, whether it has affected (treatment) or not. Time will tell," Adkins said. "It was necessary."

The pandemic has had an impact on drug treatment programs, and specialty courts like Drug Court and Mental Health Court, by forcing some programs to adopt virtual programs. Also, for ORR and the substance abuse program at the Daviess County Detention Center, the pandemic limited the number of people that can be in the program.

ORR is at about half occupancy. The residential treatment program had 47 clients earlier this week when the center's maximum occupancy is 108. Clients wear masks and new clients are tested for COVID-19 and quarantined for 10 days before being allowed to meet with other clients, Adkins said.

"We are still very much in pandemic precaution mode," she said.

Daviess County Jailer Art Maglinger said the jail's substance abuse program had 23 participants as of Tuesday. The jail has not been able to accept inmates from other facilities due to the pandemic, although jail officials have petitioned for that to resume, he said.

The pandemic caused the substance abuse program to shut down a few times and some inmates lost their credits, meaning they had to start over when the program resumed, Maglinger said. Inmates lose their credit in the program if classes can't meet for 90 days or more.

"I know there was a lot of frustration among the inmate population," he said.

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings at the jail have not been able to resume.

The jail's substance abuse program class is smaller, "so there's a long waiting list," Maglinger said.

The program "definitely has been impacted," he said. "It was disrupted due to the pandemic."

Daviess Drug Court went to virtual meetings when in-person appearances at court were mostly halted, except for emergency hearings. Most court hearings are still conducted virtually, although the Administrative Office of the Courts has issued guidelines for in-person hearings and trials to resume on May 1, and for grand jury proceedings to resume on April 1.

Daviess Circuit Judge Lisa Payne Jones, who presides over Drug Court and Mental Health Court, said an immediate impact of the pandemic was that, like at Owensboro Regional Recovery, programs had to limit the number of clients they could take while maintaining safety and distancing guidelines.

"So many treatment facilities shuttered," Jones said. "They stopped accepting people or they limited their numbers of people, so we lost a lot of treatment options."

Drug Court went to an all-virtual format for clients and for the Drug Court team.

"There are people who have never had a face-to-face meeting with the case manager," Jones said.

"You lose that human component," she said, adding that it can be hard to hold a client accountable over the internet.

"It's easier to hide. It's easier to not let yourself be seen, not participate and tune out," Jones said. "It takes more of an effort to stay engaged.

"They can always say, 'My internet connection is bad,' and it's hard to tell when someone is using that as an excuse to hide."

While AA and NA meetings were still being held in person, Jones said she didn't order people to attend those meetings.

"We couldn't compel people to do something they felt put their health at risk," she said.

Rachel Pate, program coordinator for Daviess Mental Health Court, said the pandemic has had an effect on mental health, and there has been a marked increase in people requiring an involuntary hospitalization for a mental health evaluation.

"I can tell you we have had a 42% increase in emergency medical warrants," Pate said. "We have a lot more things happening around the clock. I think we average two to four (emergency medical warrants) a day."

Mental Health Court, which is in its second year in the county, has also been meeting virtually, which has been a struggle for some clients.

"I think the virtual thing makes it hard when you have clients who have a lack of resources or are homeless," Pate said. The agencies involved in Mental Health Court have worked to communicate with clients and meet their needs, and outside agencies have helped.

"We had an organization, Anchors of Hope, that donated baskets in January and February" for Mental Health Court clients, Pate said. The gift baskets helped, "because it has been such a tough year for them," so it was good to see the clients "rewarded for their hard work."

Pate said she hopes nothing was lost by having to switch to virtual court sessions.

"I'm a bubbly person, I want to see (the clients), and want you to know I'm there for you," Pate said. "Sometimes, through a screen, I don't know if they know that."

Jones said the stress of the pandemic has been felt in Drug Court.

"We have had a lot of relapses we've had to work with," Jones said. "... It has been a really tough time to be sober, because of all the stress. We haven't kept statistics, (but) what I've heard from other people in the treatment community, relapse has been prevalent."

Even with some restrictions on the court occupancy, holding in-person sessions will be out of the question, for now, Jones said.

"Drug Court is such a large group of people. It would be hard to have everybody we need to have in-person," she said.

Adkins said the pandemic has limited intakes of new clients at ORR.

"Normally, when we would do intakes several times a week, we are only doing them every two weeks" now, she said.

ORR will keep some virtual meetings when things have returned to the pre-pandemic norm. For example, telehealth visits for clients have been very successful.

"Ideally, we like face-to-face interaction," Adkins said. But "we have been able to accomplish what we need to accomplish with Zoom and FaceTime. We've still been able to do our program by making these adjustments."

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse

James Mayse, 270-691-7303, jmayse@messenger-inquirer.com, Twitter: @JamesMayse