Drug and alcohol abuse problems don’t go away just because there’s a pandemic, and in fact may even get worse. Recent real-life news headlines like, “America is drinking its way through the coronavirus crisis” and “Quarantinis and beer chugs: Is the pandemic driving us to drink? Alcohol sales have soared” tell the story. Of course, that doesn’t even count the country’s ongoing opioid and meth epidemics, among others.  

Malibu has one of the largest concentrations of addiction treatment centers and sober living homes in the U.S., with at least one per square mile, according to data from the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. There are at least 35 licensed drug rehabs in Malibu, not counting dozens of sober living houses. It’s hard to tell whether drug and alcohol rehabs or real estate is the biggest industry in our town of 13,000, but either way, the numbers are huge.

Because drug and alcohol rehabilitation centers have been deemed “essential” businesses during the COVID-19 quarantine, they have remained open and continue to accept new patients in Malibu. Almost every local rehab now has a COVID-19 policy posted on its website.

Kelly Stephenson, CEO of Cliffside Malibu, one of the best known rehabs in town, sent the following written statement to The Malibu Times: “At Cliffside Malibu we have taken our response to COVID-19 seriously from the beginning [by following CDC guidelines]. Our priority is the health and safety of our clients, staff and community.” 

Stephenson went on to explain that “Addicts are having a hard time during this period of quarantine. Addiction thrives in isolation and anxiety, and the pandemic creates a breeding ground for those struggling the most.” 

Because of client concerns about COVID-19, she said Cliffside’s No. 1 goal right now is to reduce barriers to treatment and help patients focus on their recovery.

“We prescreen clients prior to traveling to the treatment center as well as upon arrival before entering the facility, working closely with a Malibu medical office to provide COVID-19 tests,” she wrote. “The screening includes a detailed questionnaire that includes travel history, possible exposure risks and any presenting symptomatology.

“Our cleaning protocols meet the standard of best practices. In addition, all clients are required to wear a mask for the first 14 days and are assessed daily by a licensed nurse. We also have the appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE), ongoing training and leadership meetings, and a designated Health Alert Response Team,” the statement continued.

Cliffside Malibu told LA Magazine they “will limit outdoor activities to beach visits, hikes or locations where crowds can be avoided.” They have also temporarily discontinued some services including massage, acupuncture and reiki.

Most rehabs in Malibu appear to be following similar procedures, judging by the COVID-19 policies posted on their websites. Most state that they are following directives from government agencies, testing incoming residents for coronavirus prior to admission, using PPE, disinfecting commonly touched surfaces, checking the temperatures of anyone entering the property, using hand sanitizer, disinfecting personal belongings (phone, wallet, keys) in an ultraviolet device, training staff on infection control and hand hygiene procedures, and placing patients in private rooms with bathrooms.

Experts say some drug users are already at higher risk for COVID-19 due to lung damage from smoking marijuana or vaping, according to a recent article in Forbes. Individuals with opioid use disorder and methamphetamine use disorder are also vulnerable to lung injury and therefore more susceptible to coronavirus. 

Social distancing, the primary preventive measure advised by the CDC, poses unique problems for patients in drug and alcohol rehabs, because connection to other people and social support is so important for them to achieve or maintain long-term recovery, according to Forbes.

Even so, in the name of safety, some rehabs now provide one-on-one counseling, behavioral therapies and group sessions over video chat or telehealth systems, which sometimes required new technology to be installed in their facilities; some have switched from group therapy to more individual therapy. 

The rehabs differ on some policies—while some no longer allow visits to patients, others allow visits on a case-by-case basis. While some have stopped holding or attending 12-step meetings, others still have the meetings but follow social distancing rules. 

If a residential treatment patient experiences coronavirus symptoms, rehabs must follow state guidelines that require the person to quarantine in their room, and only staff wearing proper PPE is allowed in. The rehab has to notify certain health authorities immediately and follow their instructions. 

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