ST. PAUL — Web developers at the Hazelden Betty Ford Foundation had been tinkering with a video calling program for about a year by the time the coronavirus reached American shores.
Pitched as a way for substance addiction specialists and their patients to conference remotely, it wasn't developed in anticipation of a public health crisis that would render housebound a large segment of the country's population. That it launched before one struck the United States was good fortune.
Through a spokesperson, the Center City-based addiction treatment and advocacy foundation said that the outpatient "virtual care" program has allowed more than 1,600 people to continue to receive counseling even as they practice social distancing.
Addiction, after all, "doesn’t take a day off, especially in a time of crisis," foundation human resources vice president Dawn Carlson said recently.
Across Minnesota, addiction counselors and psychiatrists have taken similar steps to digitize treatment and thus limit the spread of COVID-19, the illness caused by the coronavirus. Fairview Health and University of Minnesota facilities are now offering video calling sessions for addiction patients as well, according to Dr. Sheila Specker.
Remote meetings not only allows providers to continue treating their patients, but for those struggling with addiction to stay maintain their sense of community. Specker said the latter could be especially important given that isolation and boredom — which, in addition to job losses, the health-and-economic crises has brought about — are risk factors for problem drug and alcohol use.
"When that whole connection is not possible, that is definitely a significant factor," she said.
Less formal groups like Alcoholics Anonymous have already made the switch. Greg C., a spokesperson for AA groups in the northern half of Minnesota who asked for partial anonymity, said recently that many sobriety meetings are now being held using video calling software like Zoom and Webex to comply with Gov. Tim Walz' stay-at-home order.
Online AA meetings aren't a new concept, he said, but have become more prevalent now that churches and other gathering spaces have closed because of the pandemic. Still, he said, some groups of fewer than 10 people continued to meet in person as recently as early April.
"We know that members of our fellowship, people looking for a solution to alcoholism, virus or no virus, they’re still looking for a place to go," he said.
Greg said the intention is not to run afoul of Walz's order, which does not exempt sobriety meetings, but to provide a space for whom a more tangible sense of community is important. The newly sober tend to fall into that category, he said.
Elderly group members, he said, in addition to those with underlying health conditions, are still being cautioned to not attend in-person meetings.
Ron S., a spokesperson for southern Minnesota AA groups who also asked for partial anonymity, said that online meetings are also being held throughout that area. He said some groups are actually reporting better attendance rates than usual, perhaps because it can be easier to turn on a computer than to arrange for transportation.
The cancellation of in-person meetings, though, could be a problem for the 17% of Minnesotans who according to the U.S. Census Bureau do not have access to the internet. An estimated 10% do not even live in computer-enabled households.
Some in Minnesota have turned to charity to address the gap. Utility industry officials in the state have said, for example, that they are working with local school districts to provide discount electronic and internet equipment to low-income households whose children the pandemic has forced to learn fro home.
In a similar vein, Hazelden Betty Ford spokesperson William Moyers said the foundation plans to launch a fundraiser to help purchase computers for addiction patients who don't have them.
Though they have their benefits, Specker said she does not see online treatment options replacing in-person ones anytime soon. In the long run, though, she said that they may become a a regular component of sobriety for rural Minnesotans who have internet access but don't live near where group meetings are held.
"I think some of these things are going to continue even after these restrictions are lifted," she said.