During the Coronavirus Crisis, L.A.’s Rehab Centers Are Still Addressing the Drug Crisis

Despite some concern about the safety of resident patients, the city’s addiction specialists are hard at work

As medical facilities throughout the city scramble to accommodate what could eventually be an onslaught of coronavirus patients, L.A.’s drug rehabilitation centers are remaining open to continue to address a problem that’s plagued the city for decades.

“It’s really important to be aware that while this thing is front and center, there’s still absolutely an ongoing opioid and—here in Los Angeles in particular—a methamphetamine crisis,” says Brandon Fernandez-Comer, the chief operating officer at CRI-Help, a residential addiction rehabilitation center in Los Angeles. 

The opioid crisis has received front-page coverage over the last few years, but opioid-related deaths have been ravaging communities in the United States for decades. Since the turn of the century, more than 400,000 people have died from opioids, a whole quarter of whom died from the highly potent narcotic Fentanyl in just the last six years. The toll has driven down average life expectancy and left a generation of children without parents. By 2016, a series of articles and lawsuits drew attention to the scale of the problem, leading to a response (albeit, a tepid one) from federal officials. 

More recently, overdose deaths from stimulants have surged, potentially representing the next phase of the drug crisis. Overdoses from psychostimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine spiked 22 percent from 2017 to 2018. In Los Angeles, gay men carry the heaviest burden of meth addiction.  

It’s a medical emergency of the highest order, so rehab centers remained open and are adjusting to the realities of operating an essential business during a pandemic. 

“One of the most difficult challenges that we faced in the last two weeks is trying to very rapidly adapt to a telehealth model,” Fernandez-Comer says. 

Instead of commuting to CRI-Help’s facilities, staff now provide one-on-one counseling and group sessions over video chat. Aside from creating the infrastructure necessary to pull this off—from wiring the building to ensuring a robust broadband connection—this has posed much more human challenges. 

“You have to be able to entertain and engage in order to keep the recently recovering addicts and alcoholics with you for 60 to 90 minutes.”

Not all operations have been maintained in the transition. CRI-Help has ceased all outside activities including off-site trips, family visits, and 12 Step meetings. This last change in particular deals a “huge, huge blow,” Fernandez-Comer says, “because it is so integral to us to ensure that people have an established social support network when they discharge from treatment.”

Luxury rehab centers have made concessions of their own. Cliffside Malibu, which reportedly costs residents up to $68,000 for a 30-day stay, will limit outdoor activities to beach visits, hikes, “or locations where crowds can be avoided.” Cliffside has also temporarily discontinued massage, acupuncture, and reiki.

Inside CRI-Help, the residents have responded with a mix of anxiety, camaraderie, and resilience. 

On one hand, “People very quickly sort [themselves into] an in and out group and you get fearful. You see somebody coughing or sneezing and all of a sudden you want them out.”

Mostly though, the patients have accepted the weirdness of the moment, according to Fernandez-Comer: “They have come along for the ride and understood that these are very turbulent and unprecedented times.”

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