As New York faces the COVID-19 crisis, doctors and nurses in our hospitals across the state are desperate for much-needed help. If they do not get what they need to treat patients and protect themselves, New Yorkers will die. It is that terrifyingly simple.
Unfortunately, it is just as true that healthcare providers and at-risk populations at residential and outpatient treatment facilities across the state are also overrun with COVID-19 and struggling to treat those infected while still caring for their patients. Yet government has struggled or has been slow to address this major hole in our COVID-19 response.
In particular, New Yorkers dealing with addiction are at serious risk. Facilities like mine are full of patients with compromised immune systems and little access to the equipment and treatments needed to protect them and staff. At Phoenix House alone, we already have dozens of patients who are infected, isolated and in quarantine. That number is likely to increase rapidly as we fight this COVID crisis within the already devastating opioid crisis.
The state failed to include funding or support for addiction care facilities in its budget this month, and the death toll among those New Yorkers could be as deadly as it would be preventable. But the legislative session remains open. Albany must act immediately to enact simple measures that will undoubtedly save lives.
In times of heightened anxiety, many people who suffer from addiction are also more susceptible to relapses and overdose. Now more than ever, the state must help cover their costs to ensure facilities like Phoenix House can handle the volume.
Last year the Office of Addiction Services and Supports (OASAS) added 350 new slots statewide for people to receive Medication Assisted Treatment (MAT) to pay for these services. This year no new slots were added. MAT helps us more effectively treat patients, potentially decreasing stays and allowing us to practice physical distancing so we can treat more patients and create room for patients in isolation due to the virus. OASAS must add more slots, fast.
The State must also recognize that treatment facilities like ours are now essentially primary care centers for COVID-19 patients. Normally, if a Phoenix House patient was showing symptoms of a serious illness we would send them to a hospital. But that is no longer an option. With support, providers of addiction services can and should prevent overflow of at-risk patients onto over-crowded hospitals.
But, just like hospitals, we need masks, gloves, and hand sanitizer in order to keep our staff and patients safe. This basic equipment for treatment centers like ours must be made available along with significantly increased funding.
The number of opioid deaths in New York dropped last year, from 2,170 in 2017 to 1,824 in 2018. That is certainly something to celebrate–but it must be noted that this small victory did not come easily. Arresting a terrible trend after years and years of losses required intense focus and designated resources. COVID-19 can reverse those gains without proper support.
In order to effectively treat the patients who will continue to rely on places like Phoenix House for services, we need to be able to house those who come to us for basic help in addition to treating the most in need.
We are dedicated to treating addiction during this outbreak no matter what. But if the State doesn't act quickly with vital support, we will unnecessarily lose countless New Yorkers. In this time of crisis, the state must acknowledge that facilities like ours are playing a major role in fighting the war against this pandemic. Without help, the state's body count will unfortunately be much higher.
Ann-Marie Foster is the president and CEO of Phoenix House of New York.