Jameson: COVID-19 has put those fighting addiction in peril | Coronavirus

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MURRAY – Right now, there are as many as 200 people in Calloway and Marshall counties who are not able to lean on others in the way they are accustomed in their fight against substance abuse.

Some are in the Drug Court program of Kentucky’s 42nd Judicial Circuit. Others are in programs at such places as the Riverwoods Recovery program based at Riverwoods Church in both Benton and Murray or the Serenity Recovery in Murray.

However, they are all in the same boat, separated from the people helping them, from counselors to court officials, to their fellow participants. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, in-person gatherings are on hold, meaning that for people trying to gain sobriety, their battle just became tougher to face because they cannot be in the same room to receive the close, personal attention needed for support.

“It’s hard to get folks to support them to begin with, from that sort of circumstance. In fact, it’s almost impossible. So (the separation from their programs) creates potential for failure for those individuals trying to gain sobriety, certainly at a higher level than normally would be present,” said 42nd Circuit Judge James T. Jameson, who said he is very worried about how participants are faring without the structure these programs provide.

“Yeah, we had someone in the drug court program that slipped,” he said, going on to tell a story he fears will become more frequent. “This was one of our best ones. This was someone who had come into the program and had done very well, and was nearly at the end of the two years folks are in (drug court). This person also had become someone the others looked up to, one that would offer leadership and could help them through the tough times.

“It’s really a sad story, but this is what happens when that structure disappears.”

Jameson said this problem is not just a local matter. He said that from talking to fellow judges and court officials, he can say it is statewide, with all but two rehabilitation programs more or less shut down due to the coronavirus. A few weeks ago, Kentucky Gov. Andy Beshear issued an executive order for all Kentuckians to refrain from engaging in mass gatherings, as that is considered the biggest weapon by health and government officials against COVID-19 and its spread.

That means that for people in rehabilitation programs, their sessions – usually in the same room with several others going through the same issues, as well as the people leading the programs – have become less personal. The feeling of camaraderie from being shoulder-to-shoulder with their classmates has also been diminished significantly, Jameson said.

“It’s that personal relationship with their sponsor, the drug court staff or whoever is heading up the program,” he said. “That is not to say that a phone call or text can’t encourage someone, but that one-on-one contact is what they count on,” he said. “Then, you look at the relationships with the ones going through it with them. (Alcoholic Anonymous), for example, for decades, has held in-person meetings. That being together, that being there to support each other, that contact … we’re social beings and being around people who encourage us to be positive and be on the right path is very helpful.

“If you want to think of something as an analogy, look at exercising. We can have a difficult time exercising. But  if we get an exercise partner, a lot of the time, it can make it a lot easier to stay on course because you’ve got that other person there holding you responsible. You’re holding them responsible and you both show up and exercise. Certainly, this is different from exercising, but the same principle applies to recovery.

“Without that continued support, sobriety can really become difficult. We even see it in ‘normal times,’ where we have drug court graduates who have been sober two years and, just months after graduating, sometimes will slip because they don’t have that constant support that they’ve had for two years. It’s a real issue. We’re working really hard to create programs and address things in better ways to try to encourage people to be sober,; one, to raise awareness in general; two, then three, to give folks the support they need to pull this off, and it is disheartening to be in the current position.”

Jameson said another weapon that helps in the accountability process of these programs has also lost some of its bite – drug testing. Usually handled through what Jameson said is a reliable urine test, he said the COVID-19 crisis has caused this to be handled with an oral rinse, a process he said is much less effective.

Also, numerous defendants are being released from jails to prevent overcrowding during this crisis, and are not receiving the treatment they need at home.

The way things are going, it is not known how long participants in these programs will have to wait. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking for the addicts, suddenly finding themselves without a proverbial safety net in their journey.

“Now, no one really knows. My statement from the beginning was we wouldn’t be able to do anything until June 1, and that was just kind of my feeling from the information available to me at the time,’ Jameson said of the Kentucky Supreme Court’s rule to close all court facilities in the commonwealth to in-person traffic through May 1. That date could change, depending on how much progress is made in controlling the virus. “And I still kind of feel that way, but that’s probably when we’re headed with court anyway, so that’s what we’ll see generally (with addiction programs). Even then, I can’t believe that we’ll go back to just the way things were. I’d imagine there will be a slow unrolling of restrictions, if you will.

“We’ve got our first virtual session scheduled for (this) week. We’ll be meeting by video chat conference. The drug court team is staying in daily contact with (participants) either through video conferencing or text or whatever is available for any particular individual, but it’s just not the same.”

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