More residents entering medically-assisted treatment amid pandemic

Brittany Irick, left, and Joe Klass, members of the Monongalia County Health Department's Quick Response Team, recently spoke at a Marion County Family Resource Network community meeting. Monongalia County's QRT will assist in getting Marion County's new QRT up and running.

MORGANTOWN — Public health officials in Monongalia County may be fending off a prolonged spike in positive cases of COVID-19, there is hope among amid the pandemic for residents who need help for other health concerns.

It appears more people have used the isolation and social distancing to consider entering into medication-assisted treatment for substance use disorder.

Michael LeMasters, pharmacist at Pierpont Landing Pharmacy and a member of the Monongalia County Quick Response Team, said he has experienced a spike in the number of people seeking information and then taking action to enter MAT.

“One of the factors that has changed in pharmacy with COVID-19 was that, to increase social distancing, we went to drive-through only,” LeMasters said. “That model seems to increase the number of individuals who want to talk about their medications, specifically medications that related to medication assisted treatment. The only thing I could think of was that patients felt the drive-through increased their privacy."

LeMasters said because individuals could not leave their vehicles nor have other customers around them, it led to a private environment where they could open up and talk.

“The drive-thru appeared to give more privacy and in turn, that encouraged patients to open up more about treatment,” LeMasters said.

MAT combines behavioral therapy with medications that will help ease withdrawal symptoms and psychological cravings that can occur when an individual quits taking opioids, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. The medications include methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone.

During his service on the Monongalia County QRT, LeMasters has seen his patient caseload of those entering MAT programs increase via referrals from peer recovery coaches. As fellow QRT members, PRCs get overdose reports from MECCA 911, law enforcement and EMS sources with a goal of finding individuals who overdosed within 24-72 hours to get them into treatment.

Treatment could be a variety of options, including an in-patient rehabilitation center, a 12-step program, a sober living house, and more. MAT can be coupled with those behavioral therapy practices.

One of LeMasters’ new patients was referred to the program from Dan McCawley, program manager for WV PEERS and a member of the QRT, which was organized in 2019 by Monongalia County Health Department. The individual was having trouble getting a MAT prescription filled, until he learned about LeMasters and Pierpont Landing Pharmacy from McCawley.

“Some of our patients have had a very difficult time, to say the least, dealing with feelings of isolation and loneliness brought on by the pandemic,” McCawley said. “It’s often said that isolation is at the core of the disease of addiction. That, coupled with the inability to connect in person to lifesaving programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous, has had a profoundly negative impact on individuals struggling with substance use disorder.”

The Monongalia County QRT began meeting weekly in May 2019 and is funded with the support of a $230,000 grant from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources, Office of Maternal, Child and Family Health awarded to Monongalia County Health Department. In addition to LeMasters, McCawley and McCawley’s fellow PRCs, members include health department staff, law enforcement, EMS, MECCA 911, faith organizations and others.

Earlier this year, MCHD received a grant, once again distributed through the state DHHR, that will allow the QRT to operate at least through August 2022. These funds come from an Overdose Data to Action grant through the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

PRCs can also help connect residents to services, such as housing, help with utilities and naloxone, a drug that reverses the effects of an opioid overdose.

As businesses open up, patients are allowed back in the pharmacy, however, LeMasters believes some will keep using the drive-through.

“I would encourage people to come see us regardless, whether it’s a walk-in or a drive-through. But I feel like a lot of MAT patients will continue to use the drive-through now that they’ve seen the ease of using it,” he said.

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