Gov. Janet Mills speaks to the media at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak in Maine. Credit: Robert F. Bukaty | AP

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The COVID-19 pandemic is affecting every American and billions of people around the globe. That includes individuals with substance use disorder, who are having their worlds turned upside down by the pandemic. Addiction is a disease of isolation; COVID-19 is a disease that requires separation.

Thousands of Mainers are accustomed to attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings several nights a week. Treatment providers do all they can to “connect” persons suffering from addiction with recovery support: recovery coaches, including 250 newly trained under the Mills administration; recovery centers; recovery housing; a recovery-friendly job. But the critical need to physically distance from one another during this public health emergency removes the most important link to a person’s recovery.

In addition, while Gov. Janet Mills’ administration has taken aggressive steps to advance telehealth and safely facilitate operation of opioid treatment programs and syringe exchange service sites in a time of physical distancing, treatment facilities still may be more difficult to access and the anxiety alone can trigger a re-occurrence of illness.

The Mills administration is providing support to 10 recovery community centers across the state located in Boothbay Harbor, Bath, Bridgton, Calais, Machias, Caribou, Brewer, Millinocket and Houlton, served by a hub at the Portland Recovery Community Center. These centers do not provide medical treatment; they provide crucial social support, link individuals to treatment and other supports to recovery. Unfortunately, all the centers are physically closed during the period of the public health emergency. These centers normally host hundreds of meetings a week, including meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, etc.

The risk that the closure of these centers poses to persons seeking help for substance use disorder is real and substantial.

We thank the amazing managers and volunteers of these recovery centers for continuing to provide as much support as possible through innovation and virtual platforms. They are working hard to reach out to center participants and provide support through all means available short of a face-to-face meeting.

By March 17, virtual meetings were being hosted by the Portland Recovery Community Center and made available statewide. It currently hosts 16 virtual meetings per week online (through Zoom), four yoga classes and plans for additional live watch parties and events. Staff and volunteers of the centers are also making phone calls to center participants.

The Bangor Area Recovery Network has begun a recovery support Facebook page. Other recovery centers have established or ramped up their telephone recovery support programs and the recovery coaches continue to provide recovery support and coaching by telephone or Skype/FaceTime. We are also developing a statewide virtual recovery event.

Mainers can do many things to help our friends and neighbors in need of support:

Call your local recovery center and ask how you can safely support its work. Despite being closed physically, these centers are very much open virtually and emotionally.

Contribute funds to the non-profit organizations that operate these centers.

Reach out to a person you know who is in recovery, or an affected family member, and ask how they are doing in this historic time of social distancing.

Spread the word that free, confidential peer recovery support is available seven days a week, and help is only a phone call or click away. If you, a friend or a family member needs help, resources are also available by calling 211. For more urgent needs, call the state crisis line at 1-888-568-1112.

Social distancing does not need to mean social isolation. Let’s not allow the COVID-19 pandemic to push back Maine’s recovery from the opioid epidemic. We are all in this together and responding to the needs of our friends and neighbors in recovery will help get us through it.

Jessica Pollard is director of the Maine Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of Behavioral Health. Gordon Smith is director of opioid response in the Office of Gov. Janet T. Mills.