COVID-19’s hidden toll

For those in recovery, these are perilous times

AS OF THIS WRITING, the death toll from COVID-19 is high and cointinuing to rise. Hundreds of thousands more have fallen ill before recovering. And curbing the spread of the disease has necessitated incalculable economic damage, shuttering main streets across the country and casting millions into unemployment. As catastrophic as the damage has been, those in the recovery community know that it has imposed a cost not reflected in the official statistics.

This community–comprised of individuals struggling with addictions to drugs or alcohol, and the people and organizations dedicated to helping them–has always been in a precarious position. The organization that we lead, Bridgewell, has become a vital resource in Massachusetts to thousands of people with substance use disorder despite a very modest budget. However, the pandemic’s second-order effect has been to amplify addictions and simultaneously limit our ability to treat it; combined, the result is a crisis unreported in the formal COVID metrics.

People in recovery will tell you that even during “normal times,” the path to wellness is long and arduous. These are not normal times, which sadly means the road to recovery has been closed to many. For Bridgewell and similar organizations, this is a moment of urgency. Opioid use has surged during the last six months, with more than 40 states reporting increases in opioid-related deaths since the beginning of the pandemic. Liquor sales skyrocketed by 55 percent in the first months of the pandemic.

During this pandemic, services have been shuttered or significantly altered. Many meetings and therapy options have gone virtual, and while these options are helpful, they cannot replace face-to-face human contact. Relationships and trust are key building blocks to recovery, and have been replaced with isolation, loneliness, and despair in many cases. This phenomenon is amplifying at-risk individuals’ vulnerability to substance abuse. Our women’s treatment program, which is ordinarily at full capacity, is serving just 63 percent of the women they normally would. Those empty beds do not represent a lack of need but a lack of access and a lack of referrals from local courts, which were closed for months. As they slowly reopen, our hope is that people will have greater access to treatment.

At a recent panel of public health experts organized by the Association of Schools and Programs of Public Health, Brown University professor Brandon Marshall warned: “This is a perilous time for people with Opioid Use Disorder.” He went on to explain how the behavioral changes wrought by the pandemic “could lead to a surge in overdoses in the next few months.” This is the true impact of COVID-19, which impacts so many in unseen ways.

As challenging as this moment is, there is much that can be overcome through compassion and direct action. In addition to keeping up with the people in your own lives, it is more important than ever to reach out to your legislators to make sure treatment programs are funded and covered by insurance. Before coronavirus, Massachusetts was a national leader in treating addiction, and we can be a model in how to respond to this crisis as well.

Meet the Author

Christopher Tuttle

President and CEO, Bridgewell Inc.
Meet the Author

Joanna Huntington

Director of housing and recovery services, Bridgewell, Inc.
In order to do so, we must directly address the damage COVID-19 has wrought in the recovery community. We are rightfully horrified by the daily count of lives lost in the pandemic, but are often deaf to the steady drumbeat of victims that fall to the awful disease of addiction. If their deaths were reported daily in the same manner, how quickly would our nation act to confront this other deadly affliction?

Christopher Tuttle and Joanna Huntington are president & CEO and director of housing and recovery services, respectively, of Bridgewell, Inc. headquartered in Peabody.