Going to Rehab in the COVID-19 Era: What You Should Know

January 21, 2023

5 mins

Never Alone Recovery


Recovery has certainly been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. If you or someone you love is considering drug rehab, here's what you need to know.

Recovery from substance abuse disorder is a difficult but important process that’s been complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic. With so many strict new parameters in place, the techniques that worked before may or may not be suitable as our understanding of COVID-19 transmission has changed over time. 

Especially for drug rehabs, pandemic conditions are challenging to work under. People suffering from substance use disorders also have new issues to worry about, as they are more vulnerable to disease. Finding care and staying safe has become more tricky. In this guide, let's look over some recent findings about addiction recovery and the coronavirus.

Substance Abuse Disorder and COVID-19: The Facts

While it would be nice to think otherwise, the circumstances of the COVID-19 pandemic have made recovery from substance abuse disorder difficult. In fact, the pandemic has been causing more problems for those struggling. In the United States, fatal drug overdoses have been increasing before and during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although overdose deaths had already been on the rise, pandemic-related difficulties–e.g. social isolation, stress, and decreased access to substance use treatment–have exacerbated the increase in overdose deaths in the United States.

As deaths from substance abuse disorder have increased during the pandemic, access to help has become more difficult. Worryingly, addiction treatment utilization is estimated to have decreased in 2020, which is in part because the spread of the pandemic forced many support groups to shut down. Moreover, many treatment centers had to reduce their capacities, limiting how much support was available. Due to social distancing, access to needed social support and community has been limited. 
For those who can’t access help, the CDC has released harm reduction strategies and guidelines on how to avoid overdose during the pandemic.

They have suggested things like making sure others are present when using, washing hands and injection sites with soap and water, using small amounts of drugs at a time, and avoiding sharing drug use equipment.

People with substance use disorders are at a heightened risk for serious complications from COVID-19.

As with the elderly and individuals with compromised immune systems, vaccination is recommended for those with substance abuse disorder. In a study from September 2020 that examined the health records of 73 million patients, researchers found that despite only making up 10.3 percent of the sample, people with substance use disorders accounted for 15.6 percent of COVID-19 diagnoses. Given the risk of infection is even higher for unvaccinated people, the CDC highly recommends those with substance abuse disorder seek vaccination. Although it cannot fully curb the effects of substance use on the body, the vaccine can better protect those struggling, allowing them to focus on their recovery. 

Risks at Rehab

Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has complicated the rehabilitation process. While rehab clinics are meant to help people struggling, they themselves have new pandemic-related risks to consider. 

According to the CDC, people with substance use disorders are at a heightened risk for serious complications from COVID-19. This is because chronic substance use can harm the body’s immune system, making a person more vulnerable to COVID-19. These substances—such as opioids, alcohol, nicotine, and methamphetamines—also present greater risks for developing severe illnesses, which further inhibit the body’s ability to fight COVID-19. As a result, it is extra important for those with substance abuse disorder to take precautions.

Drug rehabs and other centers with community-based recovery strategies incidentally create opportunities for COVID-19 to flourish. Preventative guidelines are helpful but not absolute, which is important to know since both staff and clients are capable of spreading the disease.

COVID-19 Safety Protocols at Rehab

Many rehab clinics have already implemented policies and protocols to address issues posed by the pandemic. Similarly, many states and organizations have released guidelines on how the clinics should operate during the pandemic, providing further clarification regarding how to mitigate exposure and transmission. 

For example, New York State’s Office of Addiction Services and Supports released a set of COVID-19 safety guidelines to opioid treatment programs (OTPs). These included making arrangements for staff shortages, having a designated isolation room for a suspected exposure or positive test result, facilitating education and awareness about COVID-19, and utilizing more take-home medication to reduce clinic traffic.

Ohio’s Mental Health Addiction Services released guidelines as well. Notably, Ohio’s guidelines emphasize treating patients with symptoms of COVID-19 in separate rooms. Moreover, the guidelines instruct caregivers on how to reduce transmission in their facilities; these protocols include social distancing, masking, and developing a plan for staff shortages. Patients with confirmed COVID-19 cases are able to take home their medications for up to two weeks. OTPs were instructed to keep those unable to manage take home doses safely in the clinic. 

But states are not the only organizing bodies who are responding to the pandemic. The American Society of Addiction Medicine (ASAM) released a guide for addiction treatment clinicians. Encouraging them to follow national public health guidance, ASAM suggested that they:

  • Maintain an incident command structure.
  • Enforce infection control guidelines.
  • Continue to reassess procedures and policies to find out what works best.
  • Share best practices with other programs and clinicians.
  • Maintain communication with treatment partners as well as state and local departments of health.
  • Have an action plan for emergencies.
  • Monitor staff needs, including supplies and isolation areas.
  • Offer telehealth for remote support and care.
  • Monitor staff absenteeism.
  • Train staff to perform essential functions in case of absences due to COVID-19.
  • Monitor personal protective equipment, facility capacity under social distancing, ventilation, and staff training.
  • Support staff in areas of mental health and communication with management.
  • Monitor shifting needs as the pandemic evolves.

Recently, patients at one treatment center were screened for COVID-19 before they could enter, following the guidelines set out by ASAM. This screening took place in separate temporary quarantine trailers. Staff and healthcare providers were also screened with the center requiring masks, daily temperature checks, PCR tests, antibody tests, and social distancing. This vigorous screening system meant that patients who tested positive for COVID-19 were sent home to quarantine before they could participate in on-site treatments. While this may seem excessive, it’s important to note that as a result of this vigorous work, the clinic has had no outbreaks of COVID-19.

Clinics are taking quite a few precautions when it comes to the pandemic. While each individual clinic might have its own way of managing, the strict guidelines set out by health organizations have helped to mitigate the risks.

You're Never Alone When You're Sober

Staying safe during the pandemic can feel impossible when you’re looking into going to rehab for drug or alcohol addiction. Fortunately, the techniques we’ve seen applied at many addiction treatment centers appear to be effective. Although the  pandemic may have complicated recovery, sobriety will never be unreachable.

If you are wondering how to choose a drug rehab in these pandemic conditions, follow us today to find out more about what care is available to you.


We're On Medium!

We're sharing the recovery stories of our community members. Be sure to check out Never Alone Recovery on Medium to read those featured stories.



Check Out Our eBook
Surviving Your Loved One's Addiction


$19.95 Value
Inside spread with pullquote