In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, West Side native Jerome McNutt is feeling good. Although he hasn’t been able to work his “non-essential” job since mid-March and has to do his therapy session at PCC Community Wellness Center by phone rather than in person, the 58-year-old is optimistic about the future.
After decades of drug abuse (mostly heroin and cocaine) and several stints in prison, McNutt has been clean for 19 months, and nothing, including a global pandemic that has infected more than 23,000 and killed nearly 900 in Illinois, will change his outlook.
“I’m a survivor I haven’t fallen off,” McNutt said recently from his Pullman apartment. “I’m trying to take things one day at a time. … I’m staying focused. I’m not letting this or nothing else get to me.”
McNutt acknowledges this is a tough time, especially for people in treatment who aren’t able to do group therapy. He encourages people in recovery to continue to socialize by phone and email and stay connected through social media; he frequently posts on Facebook and notes there are online groups for people with addictions that can provide important support and encouragement in a time like this.
Just keep busy, McNutt says; being bored can be especially dangerous for people who’ve stopped using. And for those who are still addicted to drugs, he said, “This is a good time to get your life right.”
Health experts and advocates for people fighting addictions agree.
Kelli Bosak, PCC’s behavior health manager, said the Federal Qualified Health Center – with 13 sites in the western suburbs and on Chicago’s West Side, including two clinics in Austin – is seeing an increase in patient visits, some people seeking help for the first time.
Like other organizations providing treatment to people with addictions, PCC had to pivot its services last month even before the state enacted its stay-at-home order March 21. Bosak said PCC started the week of March 16 to evaluate how their clinics could move from in-clinic visits to telemedicine.
This past week, PCC restarted one of its addiction groups by phone, with the hope of extending these virtual meetings to other groups, Bosak said. They’re finding HIPAA-compliant platforms that will allow patients to log in safely and securely.
“We know from talking to our patients that those who were in group before miss it … they’re really wanting it to restart,” she said.
While patient visits are up, so is concern and worry among PCC’s staff; PCC is seeing more stress among its staff and providing support for them, Bosak said.
At The Loretto Hospital, there’s been a decline in the number of people coming for medication- assisted treatment as well as other behavior health programs they offer, including a 24-hour observation period where patients can be evaluated for the services they need.
“We’ve seen a drop in people coming to get service because of the pandemic,” said clinical supervisor Wiley Harris. “People are full of a lot of fear and anxiety.”
Group therapy offered three days a week at which patients also get medication that helps them stay off drugs has continued despite the pandemic, but turnout has been very low, Harris said.
He notes that social distancing is maintained and patients, most of whom come from Austin, don’t have to rely on mass transit because the hospital provides transportation.
While telemedicine can work for some, for others it’s a problem because not everyone is comfortable using video, said Erin Borders, director of outpatient services at Loretto. She’s heard that some clients don’t want others seeing the inside of their homes; and not everyone has a smart phone or laptop.
Once the state’s stay-at-home order ends – now set through April 30, though officials have hinted it may be extended – Harris hopes people will return to treatment.
“Although we have this pandemic, people still need to take care of their health.”
For McNutt, this is a critical time, when everyone needs their mind to be clear and focused on the future.
“I have things to look forward to. I’m not going to get depressed and worry about this,” said McNutt, whose roots in Austin are deep; some family still live there, and he attended Spencer Elementary School and graduated from Austin High School.
“I am going to follow the guidelines – stay six feet apart, stay inside,” he said. “If I can make it through that (quitting drugs), I know I can make it through this.”