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We always say that addiction doesn’t stop for anything, and that includes the coronavirus pandemic. When the nation began its emergency response to the virus, so did Spectrum Health Systems. On April 24, we opened a COVID-19 unit on our Westborough campus for clients with the coronavirus in need of detoxification and clinical stabilization. We wanted to ensure that people struggling with addiction still had a safe place to undergo detoxification and begin their treatment, under the watchful eye of our clinical staff. AnnMarie Chimera was one of the first nurses to volunteer for the COVID-19 unit. We sat down with her to talk about her experiences.

How did the COVID-19 Unit start?
The nursing staff was called into a meeting with our Chief Medical Officer, Dr. Jeffrey Baxter, plus some other doctors from UMASS. They asked for our input on client care and what could make a difference for our clients.

Special protocols were put into place, so everything went very smoothly when we launched the unit. Clients testing positive for COVID-19 must meet ASAM requirements for withdrawal symptoms in order to qualify for medically monitored detox. Clients are typically here for 2-3 weeks and most continue their recovery in other areas of Spectrum’s continuum of care such as inpatient and outpatient treatment. This is longer than the normal period of stay, which is 6-7 days, because clients must have two negative COVID-19 tests before they can be discharged from the unit.

Individuals admitted to the unit must be stable in terms of COVID-19 symptoms. If their condition worsens, we would transfer them to a nearby hospital that has equipment specific to the virus such as ventilators.

What are your day-to-day duties like? Do they differ from normal?
My duties differ a little bit in that we’re treating COVID-19 in addition to substance use disorders. In addition to the detoxification process, we’re doing respiratory assessments for each client every four hours. We’re checking their pulse, listening to their lung sounds and watching for changes in their skin.
What’s it like being on the front lines of addiction and COVID-19?

As a nurse, when COVID-19 first hit, we all wanted to step up and help. The need was intense, and things were changing rapidly. When Spectrum announced this specialized unit, there was a handful of nurses who were excited to help and be a part of this.

I’m so happy that Spectrum is able to do this for the community and for people who are often forgotten. A lot of our clients have come from the Barbara McGuiness House for the Homeless in Boston. We’re able to admit them into treatment and provide more resources to get them stable with lifesaving medication, counseling, and more. We’re also able to treat co-occurring disorders, which sets us apart.

What’s it like for clients who are battling addiction in conjunction with COVID-19?
It’s overwhelming for them. A lot of them feel pushed over the edge while they deal with addiction, mental health struggles and the coronavirus. We have psychiatrists on staff that provide much-needed counseling and can prescribe medication to help with disorders like schizophrenia.

We can treat 15 people in the unit at any given time, and they come in afraid. They don’t want to open up. But over time, we see them reach out and accept the help. I can’t tell you how full my heart is every time I leave the unit seeing clients improve.

Clients can interact with each other, and they also have iPads where they conduct telehealth visits with Spectrum and non-Spectrum providers, attend AA and NA meetings, and meet with case managers.

Spectrum Health Systems has treated over 45 clients who are COVID-19 positive. We’re accepting individuals 18 years and older who are physically dependent on drugs and/or alcohol and have had a positive COVID-19 test within the last 30 days.

If you or a loved one is struggling with addiction, call us today at 1-877-MyRehab and talk to our professionals. Help and hope is here!

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