Silver Linings for Services Begin to Show Through the COVID-19 Fog: Several Emergency Initiatives Could Help South End Opioid Issues Long-Term

Whether it’s tele-medicine, moving some shelter beds elsewhere, or delivering Methadone to the home of patients, several emergency initiatives instituted for the opioid recovery community seems like they could have a long-term effect on changing the optics and issues on the Mass/Cass corridor.

The Worcester Square Area Neighborhood Association (WSANA) held its third monthly online meeting Tuesday, and within their discussion of treatment initiatives and changes through COVID-19, several new pieces were unveiled that could reduce the numbers of people coming to the neighborhood for services – and sometimes staying afterward for mischief.

Colleen Labelle, the director of the office-based Addiction Treatment program at Boston Medical Center (BMC), told WSANA they are working a lot differently to help treat patients during COVID-19.

That includes using many more tele-medicine visits with recovery patients, who are now able to get medications delivered to them, refills approved online and – perhaps in the future – not have to come to BMC and walk the gauntlet of drug activities leading up to the hospital.

“One silver lining of COVID-19 is our patients are doing better because they aren’t making that walk and aren’t coming into the neighborhood now,” she said. “It’s a trigger and a temptation for folks. We see patients at home because of this. We’re all operating with tele-health. We can see more patients now and we don’t have to make them come here and walk through that to BMC’s walls. It makes no sense to make people do that.”

There is a lot of debate over tele-medicine within the recovery community, and particularly with the services offered at BMC and in the Mass/Cass corridor where very visible temptations can overcome some fighting relapse. So far, Labelle said there has been great success and they have gathered an increase in patients going from about 800 to 950 patients at the program – some of that due to the population that has been released from the Suffolk County House of Corrections. There are other patients who have found tele-medicine more accessible and a way to avoid the stigma of coming to BMC for in-person help.

“I think it will last because they have been moving on this at the federal level,” she said. “This is bringing more patients into care that would not have gone. There is a stigma still to getting help and they won’t come in here.”

State Rep. Jon Santiago said this very debate is unfolding right now at the State House in regards to the future of tele-medicine for recovery post-COVID.

“This is an active debate going on in the Legislature now and I hope we can get something on the ground soon.”

Said Labelle in response, “You shouldn’t be dragging patients on three buses and a train to get here so we can tell them they’re ok and then take their blood pressure. That’s crazy.”

On another matter that was closely related to the same conversation, Steve Fox – a guest of the meeting who runs the South End Forum – said the Mass/Cass Task Force has been discussing an emergency measure approved by the federal government to allow Methadone to be delivered to the homes of patients.

He said that would eliminate hundreds of people having to come to the South End and Newmarket to get treatment each day, with some staying around afterwards to linger and loiter. It is a change that he said could transform the tenor of the opioid discussion in the South End.

“During the pandemic, Methadone has been allowed to be delivered to homes as a result of a federal regulatory decision to allow people to receive their prescriptions at home,” he said. “For WSANA and the South End, this is an incredibly important decision…If we can do home delivery of Methadone because of the pandemic and it’s working well, there should be no reason why we can’t do it post-pandemic. It eliminates the need to come here day-to-day. We’ve opened the door now to treating with Methadone differently than we did before.”

That was a major piece of food for thought.

Meanwhile, Mike Nelson – WSANA’s representative on the Mass/Cass Task Force – added that the pandemic has featured the relocation of 350 homeless shelter beds out of the South End and to other neighborhoods. In this case, it involves college dorms that are empty, but he said there is no reason other areas cannot be sought to permanently relocate those beds after the pandemic. “There have been 350 shelter beds moved out of the South End for social distancing and spacing,” he said. “That aligns with what we’ve been calling for. It’s come in a different way, but it’s the result we have wanted.”

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