If there’s an end in sight for the COVID-19 outbreak, it doesn’t seem very close and people are starting to accept the realization that this may be the norm for the next several weeks or months.
The human services community might be the hardest hit of all. Human services agencies virtually everywhere have had to adapt as one of their main functions, connecting groups of people who need help to a face-to-face resource (or even just to each other), has been temporarily barred by the federal government and New York State. That’s particularly apparent in Ithaca where there’s an abundance of such agencies, both government-run and not. Those adjustments have been especially crucial for their clients, most of whom depend on the agencies for either meetings, counseling, face-to-face appointments or some other type of support.
One of the most significant closings was the Ithaca Community Recovery building at 518 East Seneca Street, commonly referred to as “518” by those in the recovery community. Thomas Evans, the chair of the board of directors for Ithaca Community Recovery, said the burden of safety became too much for them to ensure that they weren’t endangering people simply by letting meetings continue.
“It was really tough, a very difficult decision,” Evans said. “The hardest decision I made that week was closing the doors at 518. The life sustaining businesses and organizations are still running, and I would make the case that 518 offers a life-sustaining service to the community as well [...] We just couldn’t control it enough to make sure that people were safe.”
Initially, Evans and the board had tried to stay open while encouraging the groups that utilize the building’s spaces to employ safe social practices and hiring someone to provide extra cleaning work between meetings. Ithaca Community Recovery was even planning on hosting an increased load of meetings, as some were relocated by religious buildings in the area closing their doors. Yet spaces like the Ithaca Community Recovery building were not exempt from the state’s tightening group gathering restrictions, forcing organizations to eliminate their face to face meetings. In that space alone, meetings for several different recovery groups were held multiple times throughout the day: Evans estimates that 65 groups regularly use the building for meetings, and those meetings can range from around 10 people to around 50.
Evans said many of the meeting leaders have moved their sessions online in an attempt to maintain a sense of normalcy and routine among the chaos. Evans said that could prove effective in the short-term, although its long-term efficacy remains to be seen.
“The recovery community around here has [picked up] the Marco Polo app [an instant video messaging app] and they’re coordinating Zoom meetings through that,” Evans said. “I worry that people, right now, will isolate. I think a lot of people that come to the building have it as part of a habit and part of a routine and they find themselves coming back there. And we take away the ability to stay in that routine and they might isolate, and it’s easy to call into a phone or a Zoom meeting, but it changes habits. And I mostly worry about the newcomer, someone who hasn’t really been before.”
CARS, at least at its downtown Ithaca facility, has continued operations albeit with slight changes. Spokesperson Brad Walworth said they are actively ramping up usage of non-human contact utilities like video or tele-conferencing for clients that would be helped by those methods. Its residential Trumansburg facility is still accepting applicants, albeit more slowly.
“Cayuga Addiction Recovery Services continues to offer both Outpatient and Opioid Treatment Program services at our 334 W. State Street location,” Walworth said. “However, we are also increasing and encouraging the use of our telehealth services. All clients will be screened prior to entering the building, which will include the taking of your temperature. If individuals are interested in an initial assessment or have any question regarding existing appointments for addiction recovery services they may call us at 607-391-1038.”
Alcoholics Anonymous meetings are still being held at certain locations and also via Zoom conferences, as well as other recovery programs normally hosted by Ithaca Community Recovery, though that level of meeting only replaces the face-to-face meetings to a limited extent, said local photographer Franklin Crawford. Crawford has been in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous for several years.
“This situation gives me great empathy for people, like me, where there’s nothing that replaces human contact, you can’t replace it,” Crawford said. “But you can give it a surrogate, and people do get some comfort from knowing that other people are responding to them.”
Crawford noted that not everyone in those classes or meetings has access to the internet or even a working phone, which presents another challenge in and of itself. One man, Brandon, who used to work at an Ithaca facility but moved out of town, said there’s also the question of people who can’t afford unlimited plans on their phones and whether they’ll be willing to spend valuable minutes on those meetings if they have to phone in, instead of calling family or friends instead.
“It’s vital for all recovering people because we know each other,” Crawford said. “We can read between the lines and read facial expressions. You can read when someone’s going flat-eyed, I call it. When the relapse is right back here and they don’t see it. They might be aware that their thinking is getting a little [wacky], but unless they open up their mouths and break the loop, it stays a secret. That’s the first thing to go, for almost every relapsing person, is the lines of communication.”
Even with a possible re-examination just a week away, as Evans said he wants to see if it’s possible and legal to re-open the Ithaca Community Recovery building on March 31, he knows the gravity of the builiding closing to the vulnerable community it serves.
“It was a serious decision, and people can die by not getting to these meetings, we understand that,” Evans said. “We did not take it lightly.”
Agencies and programs that deal with people who aren’t in recovery but are otherwise in need of human services have also had to make their own adjustments, with varying degrees of success. There’s a wide range, so many that they can’t all be visited here, but it’s fair to say that each one that place a significant amount of value on face-to-face contact are grappling with how to best serve their communities going forward while incurring as little disruption as possible.
Matt Mayers runs a program through the Southern Tier AIDS Program supporting people incarcerated and newly released from prison and helping to connect them with social services in their home counties. He explained that much of his work is already done remotely because he deals with people all over the state, but that when the New York State Department of Corrections announced a ban on visitation it severely inhibited his ability to help people who were already incarcerated, and those that have been put into prison since.
“Since then we have been unable to meet with our clientele in person and enroll them in services,” Mayers wrote in an email. “As the week progressed we have been able to reach out to clients who have been released and to nursing staff in prison in an effort to ensure individual's are set up with treatment, health, and social services upon release. Some issues we have been facing are: post-release health appointments have been cancelled as a result of the virus and case managers that would typically meet with individuals once they are released are unable to meet with them in the community. This is a significant burden for folks who require transportation to appointments and additional face to face support upon release.”
Others still, like the Finger Lakes Independence Center (FLIC) and the Suicide Prevention Hotline, deal with people who live daily with disabilities (either from birth or acquired disabilities, meaning many seniors) or are dealing with a more immediate crisis, respectively.
Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services’ Crisisline Director Micaela Corazon said they’re still working as hard as they can to answer all the phones, despite that they’re keeping all their counselors isolated from each other which has had damaging effect on their normal camaraderie.
“We’re committed to keeping the line answered,” Corazon said. “We’re working with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline because they’re doing this with all their crisis centers: how can we use technology today to answer the hotline remotely? Like Google has a phone, a VOIP, but it’s not secure and it’s not HIPAA compliant, so we don’t want to use that. We need to use a VOIP that promises privacy and is secure and unhackable. We’re anticipating a lockdown.”
Corazon said the hotline has seen an uptick in calls from college students, either ones who used campus as a haven from their families who have had to return home and are now stuck with their families in a less than ideal situation. Counselors can’t see clients, but they’re working on finding the infrastructure to do so.
FLIC Executive Director Jan Lynch noted that her office provides consumer directed personal assistance programs, meaning disabled people are allowed to guide and choose what they receive help with from around 200 home aides who work throughout the county, which will continue at least for now. FLIC has also had to stop loaning out medical equipment, a popular program they ran but haven’t been able to continue due to sanitation concerns.
“I think that particularly hits the community of people with mental health disabilities the hardest, at least that’s my thought, because it contributes to a lot of anxiety and other issues,” Lynch said. She’ll be reaching out to staff this week to find out what the reaction to the new procedures has been from clients they work with directly.
The bizarre nature of the pandemic, and the way that it has brought the country grinding to a halt, does give Lynch some pause, but the reaction of the overall support services community has encouraged her even as the challenges have mounted to normal operations.
“What most emergency plans imagine is something like a blizzard or a flood,” Lynch said. “It’s just kind of disconcerting to think we’ve been doing all this effort for ‘What do people need to know in an emergency?’ and then this totally unprecedented thing happens, and all we can hope is that the Human Services community really pulls together as well as the community in general.”