Substance use disorder and its daily consequences take no breaks even during a pandemic. The stressors created by COVID-19, including deaths of loved ones and the disruptions to normal life from policies aimed at flattening the curve, seem to have increased substance use.
I practice as a hospitalist with an internal medicine background and specialty in addiction medicine at BronxCare Health System’s inpatient detoxification unit, a 24/7, 20-bed medically-supervised unit in South Bronx in New York City. It is one of the comprehensive services provided by the BronxCare’s life recovery center and addiction services, which also includes an outpatient clinic, opioid treatment program, inpatient rehab, and a half-way house. Inpatient detoxification units like ours are designed to treat serious addictions and chemical dependency and prevent and treat life-threatening withdrawal symptoms and signs or complications. Our patients come from all over the city and its adjoining suburbs, including from emergency room referrals, referral clinics, courts and the justice system, walk-ins, and self-referrals.
At a time when many inpatient detoxification units within the city were temporarily closed due to fear of inpatient spread of the virus or to provide extra COVID beds in anticipation for the peak surge, we have been able to provide a needed service. In fact, several other inpatient detoxification programs within the city have been able to refer their patients to our facility.
Individuals with substance use disorder have historically been a vulnerable and underserved population and possess high risk for multiple health problems as well as preexisting conditions. Many have limited life options financially, educationally, and with housing, and encounter barriers to accessing primary health care services, including preventive services. The introduction of the COVID-19 pandemic into these patients’ precarious health situations only made things worse as many of the limited resources for patients with substance use disorder were diverted to battling the pandemic. Numerous inpatient and outpatient addiction services, for example, were temporarily shut down. This has led to an increase in domestic violence, and psychiatric decompensation, including psychosis, suicidal attempts, and worsening of medical comorbidities in these patients.
Our wake-up call came when the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in New York in early March. Within a short period of time the state became the epicenter for COVID-19. With the projection of millions of cases being positive and the number of new cases doubling every third day at the onset in New York City, we knew we had a battle brewing and needed to radically transform our mode of operation fast.
Our first task was to ensure the safety of our patients and the dedicated health workers attending to them.We streamlined the patient point of entry through one screening site, while also brushing up on our history-taking to intently screen for COVID-19. This included not just focusing on travels from China, but from Europe and other parts of the world.
Yes, we did ask patients about cough, fever, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, feeling fatigued, severe body ache, and possible contact with someone who is sick or has traveled overseas. But we were also attuned to the increased rate of community spread and the presentation of other symptoms, such as loss of taste and smell, early in the process. Hence we were able to triage patients with suspected cases to the appropriate sections of the hospital for further screening, testing, and evaluation, instead of having those patients admitted to the detox unit.