At the beginning of the pandemic, the U.S. government and private organizations rushed to support health care workers — and rightfully so — with massive ramp-ups in making available personal protective equipment and testing supplies to ensure that frontline workers had the resources they needed to keep themselves, their patients, and their families as safe as possible.
These providers have been now been given priority to get the Covid-19 vaccines that are being rolled out across the country.
But one group of health care workers has been excluded from these efforts: those who work in behavioral health and addiction treatment centers.
Even as mental health issues and substance use disorders have skyrocketed during pandemic-driven lockdowns, these essential providers have struggled from day one to get the necessary protective equipment and testing supplies for themselves and their patients. They aren’t included in priority lists for Covid-19 vaccination like other health care workers, such as hospital and long-term care workers, and haven’t been allowed to sign up for vaccinations.
As CEO of a drug and alcohol rehabilitation center in Florida, I find it extremely frustrating — and more than a bit two-faced — that our staff members are considered essential workers who must come to work but aren’t afforded the same access to Covid-19 testing and vaccines as other health care and essential workers.
To be sure, corporate-owned facilities like mine have fared better — we were fortunate to have the resources to offer Covid-19 testing to our patients and employees. But most smaller community-based facilities have had to purchase masks and gloves at their local hardware stores on budgets that were already strained while sending patients and staff to local health departments and other off-site facilities for testing.
This oversight puts mental health and addiction treatment staff and their patients at grave risk of contracting Covid-19. When cases are detected, a facility must ask exposed staff members to quarantine at home to prevent further spread of the virus, which puts extra work on the nonexposed staff. Because they’re already stressed and exhausted, which can compromise immunity, those who remain on the job are then at even greater risk of contracting the virus.
It’s a vicious cycle.
The lack of testing supplies and vaccinations serve as a deterrent to those who need treatment for addiction and behavioral health issues. Unvaccinated workers can bring Covid-19 into a facility, as can patients. When the infection is detected in a facility, the clients and providers who have been exposed must be quarantined. If a facility isn’t able to hire per diem providers, this combination may mean temporarily ceasing admissions or turning away patients waiting to come for treatment.
With economic challenges and social isolation combining to reduce access to these vital, lifesaving services, overdoses have increased by 20% to 50% across the country, creating a crisis-level need for addiction and behavioral health treatment. While treatment facilities are doing the best they can to protect their patients and staff, they have been forced to do so on their own.
Those who seek addiction treatment often do so with one or more other health conditions that affect their overall wellbeing. That puts this patient population at significant risk of life-threatening implications if they contract SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. For some, it is chronic diabetes or heart disease. For others, it is severe liver disease caused by years of drinking alcohol.
The lack of support for Covid-19 protection and vaccines among health care workers in substance abuse and behavioral health treatment facilities is a significant and disappointing oversight affecting not only thousands of workers across the country but their many thousands of vulnerable patients. It must be corrected.
Despite having made great strides to elevate the perception of depression, addiction, and other mental health issues from moral failures to legitimate health issues, the workers who care for and treat these patients are not yet viewed as having the same parity as medical providers.
Across the country, health care workers in facilities that treat patients with addiction and behavioral health issues must be given the same Covid-19 protection, testing, and vaccination priority as those in hospitals, long-term care facilities, and other health care settings. These essential providers cannot afford to be at continued risk and turning away patients simply isn’t an option. There are too many lives at stake.
Jeff Turiczek is the CEO of River Oaks Treatment Center, an American Addiction Centers facility in Riverview, Fla.